Originally Posted in April 2013

Community Asset Transfer

Some of the questions we’ve been asked are about the length of time the handover of the Civic is taking and when will it be done. To answer those questions we thought it would be best to describe the process that we are undergoing first as to put it into some context.

Community Asset Transfer (CAT) can be a complex subject and one that seems inherently linked to Government cuts, the Big Society, and the buzzword of “Localism”. Its complexity stems from the fact that there is no single “off the shelf” process that can be applied because almost every CAT is different in some way.

Community Asset Transfer gives communities who feel that a building or area of land is valuable to lose the ability to do something about it. The main ways available are to buy the asset outright or to transfer it into community ownership if that is acceptable to the local authority who owns it.

That’s a simplified outline of the process and that’s the easy bit.

Community Asset Transfer has become increasingly “popular” since government spending cuts have been introduced, as local Government find ways to save or rationalise every bit of money/finance they can. These cuts have resulted in a number of community facilities, nationwide, being forced to close or reduce their operating hours or staffing levels. The effect that this has had on the communities has been noticeable, with some areas having all their arts funding cut to zero, library staffing reduced to part time hours etc. As a response community groups have increasingly looked to use the option of CAT, or another option community right to buy, to take over the ownership or management of these facilities. There are already a number of libraries throughout the country where this is happening successfully. There have even been some rural pubs saved by similar methods.

Locally the focus of this process is The Civic Centre site and more pertinently the Civic Theatre Hall.

For some years (certainly 10 or more) there have been suggestions that Wyre Forest District Council (WFDC) had wished to consolidate as many of its employees onto as few sites as possible. Not really a single site, but as close as possible. They finally agreed to move their office staff to the, now newly built, Wyre Forest House (aka Finepoint, aka The Barns with no light switch). This would mean the closure of their existing facilities with the exception of Green Street.

This included the Civic Centre site in Stourport, which incorporates the Civic Theatre Hall. There was a protest from a number of the arts and leisure groups who used the hall, alongside residents of Stourport, and eventually a Public meeting was held. Further meetings were organised and from these stumbled an emergent community group who would go onto become The Civic Group.

It was around this time that a Community Asset Transfer was being discussed as an option along with assistance from WFDC.

To make a CAT work several key stages have to be reached.

Firstly, the Local Authority has to accept that they are happy to pursue the idea of a CAT. Happily Wyre Forest District Council did,

Secondly; A group had to exist who want to take over the ownership or management of the asset. They usually have to have some legal identity such as a charity, company or one of the new Community Interest Companies. They also need to be structured and constituted in a way which will allow them to take on the asset.

Finally; A business plan has to be created and accepted. The plan has to show, like any other business plan, has to show what the community group intend to do to keep and maintain the asset. To make the plan accurate, you need information. Sometimes this information is hard to get or needs to be checked even when you get it. Local market research needs to be undertaken along with a study of local demographics, street walks, discussions with other organisations, and so on. The list can grow to quite a length, but it’s all information that needs to be provided.  The last thing the local authority, generally, wants to happen is that the asset is transferred to the group who fail within the first 12 months.

This can be quite time consuming as discussions are constantly on-going between all the parties, and any changes in local administration (say after an election), central Government Policy, local support etc can all have an effect. So long as the dialogue continues and does not turn out to be a demanding monologue progress can be made.

Once the business plan is agreed and all the parties agree to the terms of the transfer then it should be relatively straightforward – similar in effect to buying or selling a house.

It’s when problems arise or when there is more than one group or body involved that complications can, and often will, slow the process down.

We will cover that in our next blog “How long is a piece of string?”

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