Government guidance paves way for community-ownership rollout

Moves to transfer parks and open spaces from local authority to community ownership inched forward last week with the launch of new guidance.

The Government and CABE guide looks at making the business case, governance, finance and communications. It includes checklists for councils and local groups.

Transfer of ownership chimes with the coalition's thrust on localism and the "Big Society" and success can hinge on a well-thought-out business case, the guidance says.

Eight case studies, from Croydon to Sheffield, range from a charitable trust managing land with a 99-year lease to community groups using land awaiting development.

One of them, Bankside Open Spaces Trust, raised lottery and council money to lease and redevelop an urban park in London, looked after by volunteers.

Asset Transfer Unit, set up by the Government to advise on transfer, said it wanted to explore the "opportunities and constraints" provided by different types of space.

Ian Richardson, general manager of Box Moor Trust, a charity administering land and property for the people of Hemel Hempstead, said: "Until we get a real understanding of what localism means to Government, we need to be careful.

"We also need to be sure what resources may come with it. Open-space managers have historically tripped over by not being clear on what they want to achieve.

"The idea that volunteers can make inroads on routine work in a large space is odd. Ensuring quality, safety and good visitor experiences are professional, full-time jobs."

Parks consultant Stewart Harding said that the guidance "is well researched and offers a handy state of the nation report on the potential of asset transfer." He added: "I think community ownership and management is best suited to small parcels of land, not too expensive to maintain. My biggest concern is that local authorities will be stampeded into transferring assets that are unsuitable for community ownership and management."

He said it seemed "doubly unlikely" amateurs and volunteers could do more for less, given that councils were largely unable to maintain spaces well due to underfunding.

Development Trusts Association director Steve Wyler countered by saying that users often best understood the opportunities for improvements.

"With the right knowledge and resources, community groups can safeguard public assets under threat and prevent them entering a spiral of under-investment and neglect," he said.

Local authority considerations:
- Do you have a transfer strategy?
- Have you considered feasibility?
- What about community involvement?
- Implications for all sections of the community?
- How could transfer affect other policies?

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