On Monday night I spoke to Locality about community assets and the future of community ownership - you can read my full speech below.
It’s a privilege to be here tonight with Locality and with Andy from the Heeley Development Trust, who I first met before I was elected, and saw the inspiring work he was doing with a skeleton staff and local volunteers to transform Heeley, reinvesting in and delivering desperately needed services to deprived communities and providing incredible opportunities for local businesses and enterprise. I can attest to the fact that not only is the people’s park beautiful, it’s driven genuine economic transformation in the area.
This debate is about driving decisions at local and national government, but also generating a huge return on investment both social and economic, which requires vision and long-termist approaches, which in current times of austerity we don't have the luxury of.
Austerity has immeasurably and brutally damaged our communities and services. Those services have often shrunk into themselves, only performing statutory services. As despicable, political cuts go even further, many agencies have recognised they have no choice other than to work together and transform services.
That's a difficult journey to go on. It actually runs counter to a belief systems, believing in public ownership in the truly traditional sense, i.e. ownership by the state. But the work of Locality and organisations within it have shown that it doesn't have to be a backward step, or even treading water. Community ownership and practical working with community organisations have driven enormous change in our communities and empowered people who have not traditionally felt empowered by the state.
Take libraries in Sheffield, one of the few cities in the country which has managed to keep every library open. When the Council undertook its initial consultation amidst eye-watering cuts from central government, there was an enormous campaign against any potential closure or downgrading of the services - ironically led by the local Lib Dems while they were in coalition with the Tories.
There is no doubt the loss of 8,000 librarians nationwide has meant a crushing decline in expertise and experience from dedicated, valued public servants.
Five years on from then, I have five libraries in my constituency - one council-run, three community-run and one in the process of being rebuilt and co-located with the local GP and pharmacy. All of them provide fantastic services, delivering a wide range of provisions to the local community, and I run my surgeries in each of them. Obviously, however, there is insufficient funding, which means the local authority can’t provide the support it wants and needs.
So this doesn't mean I'm letting the Tories off the hook for their seven years of ideologically-driven austerity - by no means. What they have done to public services and welfare over the last seven years has been criminal, and for some it will be irretrievable. But I will hold my hands up and say that at times the Labour Party in Government at all levels has been too controlling and centrist, and that we should have and should be taking more of the opportunities not only to protect our public assets but deliver them in new, engaging, exciting and sustainable ways.
Turning to what can be done in Parliament, this report recognises welcome steps made by the last Labour Government and the Coalition on community asset transfer and community rights but it says, and I agree, that we are a long way away from a national strategy or seeing very many of the practical consequences on the ground.
But, as the report also states, the time is absolutely right as increasingly local authorities and indeed national government and other public authorities are finding themselves in the invidious position of having to dispose of their assets.
Understandably they will be de-prioritising community asset transfers in a desperate bid to recoup funding to deliver their statutory services, particularly now the DCLG guidance has changed to allow them to plug gaps in their current expenditure rather than reinvesting in assets. They simply don't have the luxury of long-term thinking, as none of us really do in our political system but it is actually very short-sighted to not be considering community asset transfers that can drive significant local regeneration.
And there are now perverse disincentives that have been put in place that actually and actively encourage authorities to flog off their estate to commercial bidders. Osborne's last budget was a major departure from the move towards Community Asset Transfers and we have consistently over the last two years seen various departments - HMRC, BIS, DWP - disposing of and moving out of offices. From a constituency perspective, it is routinely Sheffield and other areas like it that lose out and the perceived capitals of each region that benefit.
In this context, Locality’s proposals are entirely proportionate and reasonable - a Community Asset Investment Plan to prioritise and accelerate this work, to prevent our community infrastructure being flogged off of course but also crucially to drive regeneration, deliver a return on investment, to empower local people, create resilient communities and in doing so to push back against this feeling of being left behind.
Because not only is the time right in a financial context, but none of us can ignore the political sentiment that has been expressed loud and clear in the referendum vote and over the water in the election of Donald Trump. People want things to be done differently, out of Westminster and Whitehall, and we do not have time to waste.
So to make this case in Parliament, examples like those in the report are really helpful to demonstrate the benefits and the impact community assets are having on people on the ground.
For us on the ground practically, I think it would be helpful to hear how organisations have overcome those cultural barriers not just with procurement authorities but also between community groups.
Clearly, here, we need to keep the pressure on this agenda - and I’m very keen to do that cross-party, otherwise it will slip down the very long list of priorities.
Finally, I want to thank Locality and members for the ground-breaking work they’re doing in exceptionally difficult circumstances. I’m very proud to be here today, to champion your work and will do everything I can to ensure it remains high on our priority list in the Labour Party, in Parliament and at local authority level, for the future of our public services, for our communities and, I don't think it is an exaggeration to say, for our society.