‘Connections’ Ep. 8: Creative use of public assets

creative use of public assets
The Old Baths in Hackney Wick: The building contains a plant-based cafe, a community garden, photographic studios and event spaces all run by the community in Hackney. Image credit: LB Hackney

This episode of the #LearningFromCrisis ‘Connections’ series focuses on the creative and progressive use of public-sector assets to achieve greater local impact. Local authorities are increasingly asking how they can deliver more social and economic value through the properties that they own, albeit against mounting pressure to plug significant funding gaps.

Some boroughs have been increasingly innovative in how they use their buildings to provide space for operators and local groups to occupy and manage. One such borough is LB Hackney, who’s been adept at working closely with local people to help them take underused buildings and convert them into highly productive community-run spaces.

This episode is chaired by Chris Paddock, Director at PRD – a place-focused economic development consultancy that works closely with local authorities on their property portfolios.

“The importance of relationships both within the council and the community are absolutely fundamental here and that’s where some authorities could struggle if they don’t develop relationships between the finance and property teams and the economic and regeneration teams.” – Chris Paddock

Our two guests have featured heavily in Hackney’s story.

Ian Williams, Group Director of Finance and Corporate Resources at LB hackney, helped the council develop innovative policies like their voluntary and community sector lettings agreement and their increasing use of social value leases. Hackney council has used the flexibility afforded to them within local government legislation to support a diversity of local community organisations to deliver and scale their activities, generating positive social and environmental outcomes across the borough.

“We are working in some of the most challenging times that I’ve seen… [during the pandemic] the council has gone out of its way to support tenants… and help them explore creative solutions to secure additional income.” – Ian Williams

Also part of the Hackney story is Sara Turnbull. Before Sara became Founder and Director of WorkWild, she was Chief Executive of Bootstrap, a charity that manages and provides workspace for social enterprises in Hackney. Bootstrap took ownership of one of Hackney’s public assets – the Print House in Dalston – and is an example of what’s possible through a strong council-community relationship.

“We wanted to be where community works; we wanted to bring the community together through social activity but also through voluntary and entrepreneurial activity.” – Sara Turnbull

Sara and Ian have a history of working together on these projects and are able to reflect upon the practical experiences of civil society organisations taking responsibility for spaces and some of the legislative challenges that a local authority faces in trying to use property in this way.

Their wide ranging discussion includes practical advice for boroughs and other public-sector bodies who might be thinking about how to better use empty properties within town centres, high streets and industrial areas for greater community benefit.

Listen to the podcast to hear their lively discussion…

Key takeaways

  • Long term planning is key to enable social enterprises to establish and scale up. This is achieved through property ownership or long leases. Ownership means organisations can benefit from any increase in property value and borrow against that value to fund more activity and become more financially sustainable.
  • To maximise the value that community groups can deliver locally, a partnership with the local council goes beyond the operation of the building to how the authority can support business growth
  • There is flexibility for councils in how ‘best value’ obligations are met when disposing or letting assets. This isn’t restricted to achieving market value if social, economic and environmental value is identified.
  • External council-community relationships are important, but no more so than the council’s own internal relationships between finance and property teams and town centre and regeneration teams. These relationships are crucial to generate consensus on how assets should be used.
  • A key reason for Dalton’s success is the long-term view LB Hackney took. This provided assurance to the community, owners and investors that there will be ongoing buy in from the council.
  • Developing this approach to asset management isn’t necessarily possible overnight, authorities need to take their time to build community relationships and understand their needs and aspirations.

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