I have just had an interesting twitter conversation with @asset_transfer the twitter feed for the Asset Transfer Unit. They pointed me to this site call Building Community.
Lot’s of great work and some inspirational stories.
However, (and it is a big however) I think this goes to show how, in the UK at least, ‘asset’ has become synonymous with ‘building’. And the process of ‘asset based development’ has become synonymous with asset (building) transfer from local authority ownership to social enterprise. There is no doubt that this can be a part of an effective community development strategy.
But, it is not the only game in town. And it can be an expensive game. While the buildings may be sold for a pound, the cost of refurbishment frequently runs into millions. Once developed sometimes these buildings continue to demand cash to keep them open as business plans don’t quite work out as anticipated and they may become cuckoos in our communities – sucking up investment as their funders claim they ‘cannot be allowed to fail’. This is a ‘shadow side’ that occasionally becomes a very real, very expensive and very persistent problem.
What is more, listed building regulations sometimes mean that the refurbished buildings are not very green.
But the real problem is that in many of the communities that I work in lack of infrastructure is not the key challenge. Buildings are not the barrier. Lack of bricks and mortar for community use is not the bottleneck. I am not against asset transfer. In some communities, at the right time they are the perfect and logical step.
But when the bottle neck is not infrastructure but capability and confidence or ability to organise, then let’s not pretend that a new building always holds the key. We may get a better return on our investment from good old community development work – using existing spaces in the community to bring people together and help them to organise for a better future. Informal education and outreach work may be the best ways to develop the limiting assets of knowledge, skills and self belief. I believe there are communities that would love to go down these more ‘people centred’ routes but for whom available investment is tied to the transfer of buildings.
So good luck to the Asset Transfer Unit. But let’s remember that the principal assets in our communities are people and their potential. Not run down buildings. If we really want to get a return on our investment in asset based development then let’s at least consider putting that investment into the real assets – people.
There are other approaches to asset based community development that could be considered. At the moment policy and funding in the UK tilts the playing field so heavily in favour of community ownership of bricks and mortar that it is hard for the alternatives to get an airing.
But perhaps this is set to change?
I’d love to hear your thoughts…..