Protecting the community?

Last week’s television pictures of rioters and looters smashing windows and torching buildings up and down the country did little to sell the government’s vision of bringing communities closer together under the Big Society. Yet while politicians and the media argue over the root causes of this spontaneous outburst of hooliganism, the government is steadily pressing ahead with its plans to give communities and neighbourhoods more powers to influence decision making at a local level.

The Localism Bill was introduced to Parliament in December 2010 and is expected to become law during 2012. Its principal aim is “to disperse power more widely in Britain today” by creating new freedoms and flexibility for local government and new rights and powers for communities. The Bill also plans to reform the planning system by making it more democratic and effective and to ensure that decisions about housing are taken locally.

One of the more controversial aspects of the Bill is the right for communities to buy “assets of community value”. Such assets might include meeting rooms, village shops, pubs or recreational areas which are considered to be vital to the local community. Life would not be the same without them. In some instances where local amenities have been threatened with closure or sale, community groups have taken them over.

The Localism Bill aims to go much further by requiring local authorities to maintain a list of assets of community value. Communities will have the opportunity to nominate for possible inclusion the assets that are considered to be the most vital to them. When any listed asset comes up for sale, the owner will be required to notify the local authority of the proposed sale. The intention is that communities will then be given sufficient time to raise funds and make an offer to buy the asset.

The right to nominate community assets is likely to be restricted to Parish Councils, community organisations listed by local authorities that have existed for at least one year or by a group of at least 50 people on the electoral roll in the parish or ward where the asset is located.

The right to buy the asset will be time limited. There will be an initial period of six weeks for the community group to confirm its interest and a further period of up to six months for the group to agree a price and come up with the required funds.

This all sounds like good news for local communities but much less exciting if you are the owner of one of the listed assets. One wonders what incentive there will be to sell if the time scales and procedures are so long-winded.

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