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From ownership to stewardship

Picture via IndyMediaPicture via IndyMediaI find that I’ve written a lot over the last couple of years about ownership – and by extension, about land and property. Not enough, it turns out, as I read the news this week that the activists who had occupied an education and environment centre in the Forest of Dean, to try to prevent Gloucestershire Council from selling it off, have been evicted. Legally, of course, it is the Council’s to sell. The argument of this post is that it shouldn’t be.

Here’s my starting proposition: (a) public bodies should not be allowed to sell off capital assets.
(b) we need a new class of property – a stewardship category – which enables property to be held in the public good in perpetuity.

I’m planning to refine this a little as I work through the argument, and I can already hear public finance accountants listing to themselves the reasons why such a proposal would be unworkable. But as a starting point has the merit of being straightforward and simple.

We don’t think enough about property. When you start to, you realise that its extension and maintenance is a strategy used by elites through the ages to keep control and reward their supporters: Fairfax’s cavalry turning the Diggers off the land on St George’s Hill, or the enclosures of Britain in the the 18th century or the United States in the 19th, or elsewhere.

Community assets are community assets

I know this probably seems dramatic, but the point is this: community assets are community assets, but under current English law (Scotland is slightly different) community assets which are held by councils are treated as if they are the property of the current council – effectively a temporary owner – which is free to sell them if it has a bad year, or is short of money, or has an ideological aversion to the public good.

This is what is happening in Gloucestershire. The council can’t afford to maintain the centre, so it wants to sell it. But if it is sold, it won’t be maintained as a community asset; it is more likely to become a conference centre or a hotel.

Similarly, in Hammersmith and Fulham, where the Conservative council has been disposing helter-skelter of public assets, it has taken a gift from the apparently straitened Irish Government to ensure that the Irish Cultural Centre remains as a resource for the local Irish community and the wider area.

Inter-generational theft

There are several points here. The first is that public assets of all kinds are good for wellbeing, whether it is parks, community meeting places or cultural resources. We have governments of all stripes promoting the value of well-being, including Cameron’s Conservatives, but not acting on this is in any meaningful way. The second is that it is a form of inter-generational theft. Selling off assets today to reduce this year’s council tax or to cover a budget hole prevents future generations from enjoying the use of them. If Britain had a Commissioner for Future Generations, it would almost certainly be illegal. The third is that changing public assets into private assets – which is what’s going on here – is a sure way to increase inequality, already at an 80-year high in Britain. If you are interested in the prospects of the 99%, ownership and control of public and community assets ought to be a live and pressing issue.

And when you look at some of the current UK legislation, it’s clear that the government has no interest in any of this (judge a system by what it does, not what it says it does). The proposed changes to the planning legislation puts economic benefit ahead of social benefit; the changes to the law on squatting creates legislation which is generally regarded as unnecessary but criminalises squatters (very Foucauldian); while the one piece of legislation which does give some protection to the notion of community assets is under assault. There’s a clear pattern here.

It’s not as if the notion of protecting community assets for the community is a particularly new one, or a radical one. The organisation which spawned the British Wildlife Trusts was created in 1912, by a member of the Rothschild family (the centenary is now just a few weeks away). The green belt, that sharp thorn in the sides of the nation’s property developers, dates from 1947. The first National Parks in the UK were created in 1951.

Using ownership to create stewardship

This proposal, which involves creating a new category of ownership to promote and support the stewardship of assets, is in keeping with these other forms of social invention

So, the starting proposition is that ‘public bodies are not permitted to sell capital assets’. I’d include public housing in this, since the policy of selling off council housing instigated by the Thatcher government has been an unmitigated disaster in pretty much any public policy terms you care to choose.

One of the problems with this is that some public bodies aren’t very good at looking after community assets.

So let’s add a rider: public bodies can transfer capital assets to trusts which agree to undertake to maintain them as stewards (i.e. in perpetuity) for the benefit of the community. no doubt there would be some issues here about whether the trust was a ‘fir and proper person’.

Of course, the rational voice in my head is already saying that there are times when coumcils, or others, need to be able sell capital assets to reinvest in new ones. The old swimming pool on the cramped site should be closed and the profits from this re-invested in the new multi-purpose sports and leisure centre nearby. And this is true. But it requires us also to believe that in general councils (some of which are particular villains here) are not going to game any exceptions that are in place to get round the restrictions. And in turn that requires a deep culture change. For the moment, better just to say no rather than open up loopholes. Who knows? This may even create some innovation in building use, as buildings learn.

Re-defining ‘best value’

And while I’m on loopholes, it’s not clear to me, when councils do sell assets to community trusts, as in the case of the Irish Cultural Centre, why they are able to sell them at full market rate?. It’s worth a digression here: I know the legal reason, which is to do with getting ‘best value’ for public assets. But the legislation – Section 123 of the 1972 Local Government Act – was part of an ideological assault on the political independence of local authorities by Heath’s Conservative Government, which has been reinforced by judicial interpretation since. (How ideological? If you’re interested it’s worth reading this review (opens pdf) of the implications of Section 123 for councils. The answer: very ideological.)

And of course, the question of ‘best value’ for whom is itself a political question. One result, of course, is that in areas of high demand land community bidders are usually priced out of the running. So I would add another clause: that when a public body does transfer an asset into stewardship, it does so at its cost of purchase, or building, uprated by the increase in average earnings since then. After all, without getting into the arguments about Land Value Taxation, the owner of the asset has had little to do with the increase in the value of the land since then.

Responsibility to the future

And let’s keep going. There’s at least one more category of assets which ought to be owned under a condition of stewardship but aren’t. Some of these are currently privately owned. Football stadia are one example; whoever the nominal owners of the assets are, a football club clearly ‘belongs’ to its fans, who are still there when the owners and players have moved on. Yet several clubs, with long traditions, have been ruined by fast dealings by owners. I’m sure there are others.

Some of the necessary legal elements are already in place here. There’s no legal definition in English law of a ‘trust’, but there is a clear understanding of what they are: an entity that holds assets on behalf and for the benefit of others. There are legal forms for organisations which range from charities to community interest companies to co-operatives. Restrictive covenants are well understood as a means to limit the future conduct of others. The legal elements can clearly be configured. What is needed, though, is a deeper change – about the responsibility of public bodies to the future, rather than the present.

The picture at the top of this post is via Indymedia UK.

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