Public failing to take advantage of key Big Society policy

The public is failing to take advantage of one of the key initiatives in the Government’s Big Society policy, with only a handful of people taking up the chance to take ownership of local amenities.

Drew Magiera serves behind the bar at the Fox and Goose pub, Hebden Bridge, has been taken over by the local community. Picture by Simon Hulme

The public is failing to take advantage of one of the key initiatives in the Government’s Big Society policy, with only a handful of people taking up the chance to take ownership of local amenities.

An investigation by The Yorkshire Post shows that around 50 sites have been registered as Assets of Community Value (ACV) under the Community Right to Bid, which gives residents the chance to bid for a local facility if it goes for sale to prevent it going into private hands.

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Five councils in the region are yet to list a single asset, and a high number of failed applications suggests that the public do not fully understand the powers, campaigners have warned.

John Walsh from the Holywell Community Pub group, who are trying to buy the former Holywell Inn in Holywell Green

Nationally, more than 1,000 assets have been successfully nominated in just over a year since the legislation came in.

In Yorkshire, 52 community assets, including Skipton Town Hall, a Post Office in Darley and allotments in Leeds, had been listed by March this year, figures from charity Civic Voice reveal.

And one pub in Hebden Bridge has been bought by the community to prevent it becoming another faceless chain pub.

But campaigners have warned the legislation - a key part of David Cameron’s Big Society Localism vision - is failing to engage the support of the public.

Councils in Wakefield, Hull, Barnsley, Richmondshire and North East Lincolnshire have listed none whatsoever since the powers were brought it.

And despite more than 50 assets being listed in the region, more than 30 applications have been rejected - including a bid to list the doomed Don Valley Stadium in South Yorkshire and Bronte Birthplace in Thornton.

Dr Freddie Gick, chairman of Civic Voice, said despite the process of registering an asset being “relatively easy”, the number of knock backs was concerning.

He said some councils “were not enthusiastic” about approving applications, but the quality of bids must be improved to ensure more sites were given the crucial community protection.

Dr Gick said: “More encouragement is needed. These is a lot of help already available, but to get an asset listed you need to be savvy with computers and fill in the form correctly. It’s no good just saying it’s an asset because it’s old, for example, you have to show why it is of true value to the community.”

Once registered, the act effectively gives groups the chance to hit the pause button on any sale of an ACV for six months to give it the time to raise funds to buy it.

Assets can be registered in several ways - either by a parish council, constituted community interest group, like a civic society, or a group of 21 people who appear on the electoral register.

An asset can be listed if its principal use furthers the community’s social well-being or interests, for example, it has sporting, cultural or recreational use.

East Riding Council had the highest number of rejections in the region - with 15 of the 22 applications refused.

Playing fields, allotments, public toilets and even Howden Marsh nature reserve have been successfully listed, but applications to list a number of pubs, Pocklington Youth Centre and the Old Fire Station at Howden were all refused. The reasons vary, but the most common is that the nomination did not establish the community use to satisfy the stringent criteria.

Civic Voice is campaigning among civic societies to encourage them to register buildings of historic interest in their towns. Around 20,000 buildings, currently listed as of local heritage interest, could potentially be listed as ACVs, Dr Gick said.

He urged communities to make the most of the legislation. He said: “Think about what makes your town special, distinctive and interesting. It might be buildings, playing fields or theatres. If they need protection, get stuck in.“

ACV campaigner John Walsh, a director of Holywell Community Pub Ltd, which is trying to buy a pub threatened with conversion into flats in Halifax, believes more parish councils should be listing assets.

He said: “There are something like 9,700 parish councils in Britain, but just 1,000 ACVs. Parish councils should be doing more to protect buildings in their area.”

Locality, which offers advice on registering assets, said that outside of London, Yorkshire and Humber is one of the regions it receives the highest number of enquiries from.

Locality’s Stephen Rolph said many people are still unsure of where to start - and the right advice was crucial to the success of applications.

He added: “Further support and access to financial help, including grants, can make all the difference to projects taking off.”

But the Department for Communities and Local Government said the number of assets being listed was increasing.

Minister for Communities Stephen Williams said: “We created new community rights precisely to allow people to list the local assets most important to them so they are publicly protected should they ever be put up for sale.

“It is fantastic to see the ingenuity and enthusiasm that people are displaying for their community with over a thousand parks and buildings now listed, and that number is growing fast.”