Opinion: What's the deal on community assets?

I'm planning to offer a couple of words to charities minister Ed Miliband tonight, when it is hoped he will have time to join us at the Social Change Awards ceremony at Charityfair 2007.

The words are "no strings". It's because he has announced that £30m is up for grabs to help transfer under-used public assets to local community ownership.

And while the talk has been of sports halls sold for £1, I've not noticed much about the long-term implications of charities taking on white elephants that not even councils can afford to run, such as the police stations, old hospitals, shopping parades and pubs envisaged by the plan.

Let's leave aside the point that council property is already in community ownership, having been paid for by that community, and is subject to a democratic accountability missing from charities. And let's not ask why councils should not either get the cash to improve ailing properties or merely be forced to auction them off to the highest bidder.

Instead, the question about acquiring public assets must be one of sustainability: will the buildings cover their running costs, deliver a charity's mission and produce sufficient surplus to justify the investment of money, time and effort that could be used elsewhere?

It's a tall order for the crumbling wrecks councils will be happy to abandon, so the incentives will have to be hefty to confuse charities into thinking they are getting a bargain. Luckily, the sell-off plan notes that the Treasury allows the acquired assets to promote enterprise and generate a surplus to promote sustainability, but they also mention "clawback provisions" to protect public funding.

Which comes to the point about strings. As charities often find with benefactors, foundations and their ilk, those with money do so love to tell those without it what to do and how to do it, even when the donor lacks the skills, inclination, understanding or experience to do the job.

So let's look this gift horse in the mouth: will charities actually own these buildings? Or will they - as with the dubious cases of the Trafford and Wigan leisure trusts - be tied up in complex leases, loans or worse? And how long will the new owners have to wait to realise their property's true value by demolishing it and selling the land for housing?

Only then, I suspect, will charities find it worth their while to get involved in this asset stripping.

- Nick Cater is a consultant, speaker and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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