Community Right to Buy: stay focussed, go further

Sean Benstead reflects on the Labour Party’s proposed Community Right to Buy policy and finds that, to truly deliver on its potential to disrupt wealth extraction, requires deep soul searching about the resources and expertise needed to support its implementation.

In unveiling Labour’s proposed Community Right to Buy policy on Tuesday, Lisa Nandy shed some light on her previous commitments to “restore power, ownership and contribution to our communities”. We now know that, if Labour win the next general election, they will ensure that communities not only have an extended first refusal on designated Assets of Community Value through the current Right to Bid policy, but also on long-term vacant high street property, as well as the right to buy without competition and to force the sale of land or buildings in significant disrepair.

“Labour expect that the Community Right to Buy will finally come good on the promise made by Community Right to Bid”

To ensure communities have the means to exercise these rights, Labour will amend the Localism Act 2011 and further develop the Community Ownership Fund. In doing so, Labour expect that the Community Right to Buy will finally come good on the promise made by Community Right to Bid, to enable more community assets to raise revenue that can be used and passed down through the generations in a way which is driven by the wishes of the community.

On the face of it, there is little to criticise in a policy designed to ensure that land and assets are brought back into the commons, with local ownership and control, rather than being exploited for the purposes of wealth extraction and financialisation. The pernicious impacts of the flow of global surpluses of private capital into the land and property that house our communities are both broadly felt and well documented. A Community Right to Buy, alongside other community-led approaches to development explored previously by CLES and URBED, could be the beginning of a resistance to these forces from the ground up and provide a mechanism for more imaginative and democratic use of land and assets in the public interest.

“policy must be focussed on its ultimate goal”

However, to achieve this, the implementation of the policy must be focussed on its ultimate goal: a fairer distribution of the control of local assets and wealth to communities and, to do this, further work may be necessary to make Community Right to Buy more successful than its predecessor. While the mechanisms to deliver Community Right to Buy are crucial, the Labour Party should not lose focus on the outcomes that a Community Right to Buy can achieve by disrupting existing regimes of wealth extraction and financialisaton in order to benefit people, place and planet.

For communities to exercise the right to force the sale of land or assets that are in a state of significant disrepair, those communities must have the means at their disposal to assess the risk being taken and to develop a growing concern. Even with a beefed up Community Ownership Fund, there can be no doubt that more affluent communities – richer in both financial and social capital – will be better placed to take on those assets than those that are less affluent and – arguably – need them more.

“work with the communities who have the most to benefit”

To overcome this, Community Right to Buy must be supported by local authorities who can work with the communities who have the most to benefit from taking back control of their land and assets. But, with 50% cut from council funding since 2010-11, very few are in a position to offer the support needed by the most marginalised communities in accessing finance and training or negotiating the complex planning system.

Despite this, there are examples of practice to learn from. In March this year, Preston City Council adopted a traveller site on the eve of its sale with the intent to transfer management to a newly established residents’ and community co-operative. In doing so, the Council not only rescued the traveller community from a future of uncertainty and potential homelessness, they provided funding for the set-up costs of the co-operative and training on governance, legal and financial management. However, the Council themselves have acknowledged that this work is beyond their statutory function and was only possible due to external funding being provided for this purpose.

An extension to Community Right to Buy that acknowledged the contextual understanding of place held by local authorities and that provided them with the funding and resources to work in partnership with the communities most in need would have the power to disrupt wealth extraction. But to do so requires deep soul searching about the resources and expertise needed to proactively support all communities, not just the ones who are easiest to reach.