Mulling over a ‘right to manage’

One of the things that most struck me about POPSe (aside from what a brilliant idea it is) is that the social enterprise space is where you currently find some of the most interesting conversations about democracy; its quality; our aspirations for it here in the UK.

Tuesday evening’s drop-in session provided an opportunity for one such conversation when we mulled over proposals for a ‘community right to manage’ and the prospects for mutuals.

Each of the three community rights-based proposals that are currently out there in the Localism Bill brings real potential to stimulate more vibrant spaces for democratic, participatory engagement.

They all raise concerns, though; because they promise, in essence to leave it to ‘the market of community’ (aka the Big Society) to handle some of the most significant risks.

To put it bluntly, the reality of ‘community’ across the UK doesn’t come with a ready-made cookie-cutter commitment to sustainable development, nor consistently high levels of belief in the value of participation or free association among equals. That commitment is something that has to be discussed, nurtured, debated, traded, and advanced.

The risk is that stripping away much of the current policy framework for and local level technical expertise on sustainable development leaves little institutional infrastructure for managing trade-offs or competition between adjoining communities; or even within groups in the same community. Local level traffic calming and parking campaigns, for example, are often a case in point.

All these issues aside, (and they’re points for discussion, not show-stopper objections) The Waterways Project’s proposal for a ‘community right to manage’ deserves our serious attention. For one thing, community groups wouldn’t need to raise sufficient funds to exercise a ‘right to buy’ if they were only looking to exercise a ‘right to manage’. For another, they might be able to benefit from the skills and knowledge transfer potential of asset owners with oversight of lots of community managed assets – so long as those owners themselves were operating within a framework that allowed them to benefit from cooperation with ‘managing’ groups.

There are lots more things that need thinking through, of course, in the ‘right to manage’ proposal. In common with the ‘right to bid’, there may be restrictions in any requirement for a community group to have been accepted for registration as a Charity (the list of charitable purposes can be quite restrictive, for example; and I suspect the last thing the Charity Commission currently wants to have to deal with is tens of thousands of new micro-charity registrations resulting directly from the Localism Bill).

There are some fairly dull issues that would need to be tackled to do with risk and liability (think Japanese knot-weed and other invasive alien species for example; let alone breaches in river or canal banks). And with many of our waterways under-utilised, the idea of ‘canal-side’ or ‘bank-side’ community doesn’t necessarily translate into geographical spaces (6 or even 20-mile long strips) that make sense for the assets likely to be available.

A community right to manage in relation to our waterside assets (and waterways) would likely call for at least a wee bit of community engineering. But if environmental assets such as canals, for example, were more intensively used for transport or recreation, we might find that their associated senses of ‘community’ also stretched out. The trick would be to find a way to ensure that the whole exercise of community management was fun; more about the participation than the risk management; and more about shared space and cooperation than competition for scarce resources and assets.

Halina Ward
Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development
@democracyandsd

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