I have been frustrated for many years by the impacts of irresponsible private ownership in the two places I’ve known best (Deptford and Hastings) and the many communities I have been privileged to work with all over the country. There are all kinds of examples, from rogue HMO landlords to dodgy scrapyards in residential areas. But the thing that makes my blood boil is when beautiful historic buildings of huge community interest are left to rot, abandoned by delinquent owners, or passed from one to the next, each making their packet out of speculative planning permissions and none taking the slightest care for the place or its people.
I have been raising the issue with ministers for a couple of years now, originally with Greg Clark and lately with Don Foster. How can we support local government and local communities to solve the really challenging buildings in their area? It was when I saw Caterham High Street with the Rose & Young site left to rot for 25 years in the middle of a Tory high street in the SE of England that I realised it wasn’t just poor coastal towns and the north where this kind of behaviour was allowed to continue, but everywhere.
The reason it’s allowed to continue is twofold – on the one hand we have an obsession with private property rights. As a society we don’t let people drive dangerous cars without insurance and responsible drivers don’t feel bad about being made to do an MOT. It keeps everyone safe, it’s a responsible behaviour. And yet with buildings we hardly have anything to protect places and communities. Section 51, building control, even the heritage listing framework, none of it is fit for purpose when you get these extreme cases. Fit for purpose would be something that sought a realistic solution rather than just identifying the problem, emboldened local authorities and communities rather than terrified them and, most important of all, worked fast when the case was clear. I think this would be a community Compulsory Transfer Order (CTO) which would require a) proof of abandonment and/or irresponsible ownership leading to risks for the building and the local community and b) a bona fide recipient to transfer it to.
The Government has introduced important legislation to allow local communities to take on responsibility for things they care about. Yet even this purposeful approach is in danger of failing to allow communities to deal with the buildings that matter most to them.
The mystery of the recent past
The Community Right to Bid in the Localism Act 2011 introduces the idea of Assets of Community Value. This is where:
1. Its actual or current use (or there is a time in the recent past when its use) furthers the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community, and
2. It is realistic to think that there can continue to be (or it is realistic to think that there is a time in the next 5 years when) non-ancillary use of the building or land that would further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community.
Right now I am focusing on two buildings of enormous community value – the Observer in Hastings and Ancoats Dispensary in Manchester. Both have been hugely important to local people and neighbourhoods, delivering services that furthered social wellbeing and community interest over many decades (six for the Observer and eleven for the Dispensary). They are urgently in need of designation as ACV with the protection it provides against more irresponsible private ownership and with the doors it opens to grant aid for communities to bring these assets into viable, sustainable community and commercial use, with the profits from those ventures re-invested in local regeneration. If ever there was a time that this was necessary it is now and for these buildings.
The issue is the use of the phrase ‘the recent past’ in point 1. As a local historian the recent past means something different from what it means to the Norfolk farmer and landowner quoted in Hansard below. He is trying to protect his fields. I am trying to rekindle the pride in down-beaten communities who feel that nothing they do or say has any impact on the powers that be.
Can a building that has served the community interest for decades but then has become vacant, left to rot by irresponsible owners, kept in a way that has disallowed community use or indeed any use at all, still count as an ACV? Does it make a difference if during those years of neglect, local people have campaigned again and again to try to save and bring these buildings into community ownership and community use? If not, what exactly is the point of asking communities to step up and take responsibility? I am astounded that this question was not raised during the development of the Localism Bill – I feel some personal responsibility but for some reason I assumed somebody else (the heritage sector?) would have been paying attention.
But it is certainly not too late. My practical suggestion – promoted to both central and local government – is that, when considering nominations for ACV, assessors be allowed to discount periods of vacancy from the calculation of ‘the recent past’. At the moment they don’t feel they can. They need a clear reminder from DCLG of Baroness Hanham’s words: “It is the local authority’s job to put these regulations into effect and to be the guiding light” and that for buildings with long histories of serving the community interest the interpretation of the recent past is up to them.
For support on using the Community Rights go to http://www.mycommunityrights.org.uk
If you know a building that local people care about but is stuck in irresponsible ownership please let me know about it: firstname.lastname@example.org.