Labour mulls plan to boost local buyouts of community sites in England | Communities

Vacant pubs, shops and community centres put up for sale in England could be offered to local groups to buy first under “take back control” plans being explored by Labour before the general election.

Under the proposals, local groups would be given the “right to buy” much-loved community assets when they come up for sale, with financial backing from the state and an exclusive 12-month period in which to make their offer.

The proposal is outlined in a report by the independent Community Wealth Commission, and backed by the Co-operative party, which is hoping to convince Labour to include it in its general election manifesto. MPs are concerned at what they say is glacial progress under the Conservatives to help more local groups save treasured institutions that might be otherwise threatened with closure.

Several high-profile community assets have been protected with government funding in recent years, including the Vale of Aeron pub, a favourite of the poet Dylan Thomas, and a Yorkshire train line that featured in the 1970 film adaptation of The Railway Children.

In Scotland, where communities already have a right to buy, a rising number of historic pubs and other buildings are being taken into local ownership, including the Old Forge Inn on the picturesque Knoydart peninsula, regarded as Britain’s most remote mainland pub.

Joe Fortune, the general secretary of the Co-op party, said growing community ownership could help halt the decline of high streets across the country. “Our communities are being hollowed out of the assets that we all find important. It is harrowing to think that it is a trend that has not arrested,” he said.

“A strong theme of community ownership should be at the heart of a new approach to place-based economic development. On top of the economic and societal benefits, focusing on community ownership will give individuals more of a say and stake in the place where they live.”

The government launched a four-year community ownership fund worth £150m in 2021 as part of Boris Johnson’s levelling-up promises, aiming to provide local groups with the financial firepower to take control of pubs, village shops, sports grounds and other amenities.

About £71m of the funding has been allocated to 257 schemes since its launch. However, with a year left before it expires, Labour figures believe this will mean the programme is unlikely to fulfil its targets.

Suggesting that unused funds could be rolled over to form the backbone of an expanded scheme under a future Labour government, the Community Wealth Commission said that allocating £231m over five years – alongside its right-to-buy reforms – could help to support a sixfold increase in the number of purchases to about 300 a year by the late 2020s.

Backed by the Co-operative party, which is affiliated to Labour and counts more than one in 10 of Labour’s MPs as members, the commission was first launched by Lisa Nandy during her time as shadow levelling up secretary.

Led by the former Ernst & Young chief economist Mark Gregory, the commission said the community ownership fund should also be transformed to provide £26m of funding to local groups to help them prepare bids for their local assets. It also called for a minimum of half of all funds to be awarded to projects in the 30% of areas with highest levels of need.

Communities are already allowed to bid for so-called assets of community value, which must be listed by local authorities. Almost 7,000 have been nominated over the past decade, including pubs, community centres, playing fields and religious buildings.

However, fewer than 200 successful acquisitions have been made by local groups, while most of the cash made available from the community ownership fund so far has gone to projects outside the most deprived areas in Britain.

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Under current rules, landowners must tell councils if they want to sell, and community groups can trigger a six-month moratorium to give them time to prepare a bid. Under the proposed new policy, once a sale process is initiated, communities would have an exclusive right for 12 months to buy. Similar community right-to-buy rules are already in place in Scotland.

‘We cannot miss this opportunity’

Annoushka Deighton helped organise a community takeover of Stretford Public Hall in Greater Manchester in 2015, and received £288,000 from the most recent round of community ownership funding in September.

She said the funding was critical for the long-term sustainability of the hall – which serves as a hub for arts activities, live music nights, community cinema, and health and wellbeing events. However, an expansion of funding under Labour was “essential to achieving this change at a larger scale”, she said.

“I know first-hand the huge benefits that come when the local community pulls together to take over a local building or asset and provide something really valuable to local people,” she said.

“With a general election fast approaching, we cannot miss this opportunity to change how we do politics in this country.”

A government spokesperson said the community ownership fund was “on track to award the remaining money by March 2025 as planned”, adding: “[It] is a vital part of our mission to level up across the UK, and it is already making a difference – with 257 community institutions rescued and placed into local ownership.”

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