In the last issue HIP reported that Hastings Borough Council had rejected a proposal to designate The Observer Building as a Community Asset. Here, council leader PETER CHOWNEY, argues that David Cameron’s legislation was introduced to give the appearance of empowering communities, while actually making a successful community bid to buy almost impossible

Emma Harwood’s article ‘Council versus Community’ makes an effective point. But perhaps not the one she and Jess Steele expected to make.

The Council stands accused of stifling community action. But the conflict is not with the council, it’s built into the legislation. Accepting the former Observer building as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) would have been a costly mistake. And here’s why.

When looking at how the listing process for ACV works, it is worth remembering where this comes from. It was part of the Localism Act 2011, which set up all sorts of bureaucratic procedures to support David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative. But all a successful bid achieves is to place a property on a local list, which means that a community group can delay the sale for six months, while they try to raise the money to buy it.

The listing criteria are not straightforward, defined in fifteen pages of regulations. A building must in the ‘recent past’ have been used to further the interests and well-being of the community and that use must not be ‘ancillary’; in other words, it must be the main use of the building.  Furthermore, there must be a reasonable prospect of the building being returned to ‘non-ancillary’ community use within five years.  Residential uses do not count as community use, whatever the kind of accommodation that is on offer.

In the case of the Observer Building, it was originally a newspaper press with no public access and was then empty for many years. For a couple of years, a part of the building had community uses, but these were clearly ‘ancillary’: the intention of the developer was to use most of the building for housing and much of it remained empty throughout. Under the proposed community bid to develop it, most of the building would be used as housing and studio, or office spaces. And that, under the legislation, does not  count as community use.

If the council had ignored this and listed it anyway, the owner of the building would probably have appealed to a land tribunal. And that’s expensive. If the council were to lose (which it most likely would have done), it would have to pay both its own costs, and the property owner’s costs; upwards of £15,000 at a time when Central Government cuts are forcing councils to reduce essential services.  On top of that, the owner is also entitled to compensation for any losses incurred, because of a delayed sale of the building. The costs could run into many more thousands of pounds.

A report to the House of Commons Local Government Committee back in 2015 noted that of the 1,800 properties getting ACV listing, only 11 had led to a successful community bid to buy them; about 0.6%.  But no changes were made to the Localism Act or its associated regulations.

So it is  not difficult to see the real purpose of this law. David Cameron’s legislation was introduced to give the appearance of empowering communities, while making a successful community bid to buy, almost impossible.

It also ties the listing process up with so much red tape that it becomes impenetrable, making the local authority look like the guilty party, when listings are turned down. This is classic Tory smokescreen legislation, designed to give the appearance of a philanthropic purpose, but in practice doing nothing of the sort.

The way to regenerate town and village centres is not through unfunded bureaucratic labyrinths, with a built-in probability of failure. It is through legislation that properly empowers local communities and their councils in an unfettered way and provides the funding levels needed to achieve it. But we won’t get that under this government, whatever they say about austerity being over.

Peter Chowney is leader of Hastings Borough Council.

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