7. Longer-term outcomes of asset transfer requests
This section considers the potential for asset transfer requests to deliver longer-term outcomes, exploring whether asset transfer requests may enable increased community empowerment, deliver improved access to services and, finally, contribute to a reduction in local inequalities.
7.1. Potential for increased community empowerment
According to the Theory of Change proposed by Myers et al.’s (2017, p.28), ‘by providing communities with a right to request the transfer of a relevant authorities’ assets to achieve the outcomes of importance to them, asset transfer requests are a potential mechanism for shifting the balance of power toward communities’. Given that the implementation of Part 5 of the Act is relatively recent, it is too early to provide conclusive findings about how asset transfer requests contribute to long-term change outcomes. Nevertheless, in this section we present early evidence pertaining to the potential contribution of asset transfer requests to the capacity of communities to influence decisions that matter to them, identifying indications of community empowerment and presenting a wider discussion on perspectives of empowerment.
7.1.1. Perspectives on community empowerment
According to the Scottish Government, when communities feel empowered, there is:
- greater participation in local democracy
- increased confidence and skills among local people
- more people volunteering in their communities
- greater satisfaction with quality of life in the neighbourhood
During the interviews, community transfer bodies and relevant authorities were asked to define what ‘community empowerment’ meant from their perspective or experience. Their responses were quite diverse, ranging from community cohesion to capacity development and capacity (Table 11).
Table 11 Defining empowerment – perspectives from the sample
Gaining/ assuming responsibility
- ‘Normally a [asset] gets given to you and I think that’s why it fell out of… people didn’t care that it wasn’t being mowed until we were going to lose it, and then you do care. It’s only after you don’t have something that you realise, ‘my goodness, we should have been more…’, and in coming together it’s been empowering the community in the sense of support really.’ (CTB 7)
Community cohesion, belonging
- ‘A lady came up [to community event] with her husband in a wheelchair and she said this was the first time she’d met any of her neighbours here, and that must be a sign of a positive empowerment. I just think the fact that we want to have community events together.’ (CTB 7)
- ‘Community spirit, the cohesion, that’s what it’s all about.’ (CTB 6)
Being able to hold others to account
- ‘It’s about questioning and holding to account organisations that are saying they’re doing things and they’re not. So, we want that money spent in [community]. We want those services provided and we’re not going to go and seek other money to do it. What we’re going to do is make sure you do it because that’s part of the empowerment thing. So, in [community], it’s pretty clear that the community empowers itself.’ (CTB 2)
Delivering services matched to local needs
- ‘[It is] about services and the delivery of services for the benefit of the community’ (RA 4)
- ‘It gives people a bit of democracy if you own something” (CTB 6)
‘Having the right to…’
- ‘Community empowerment is about civil rights and it’s about the rights to a decent environment, a right to decide what’s going to happen in your own place and that kind of stuff.’ (CTB 2)
- ‘It means that we’ve got ownership of something that’s ours. We can go for anything. Community empowerment means you can go along there and stick something into the Police Station along the road there if I wanted to, but it means empowerment for our community which means it’s ownership for us. We’re not determined by the council then, it’s ours.’ (CTB 6)
- ‘You’d be looking to see an improvement in community participation… People getting more involved.’ (RA 9)
Confidence and ability to act
- ‘Community confidence, taking on bigger, more ambitious projects, feeling that they’ve got the abilities to take on different activities, projects, etc.’ (RA 9)
A shift in power
- ‘It’s also quite empowering that the ball is kind of in the community’s court to make a case that their use of the asset will deliver greater outcomes than the continued ownership of the public sector.’ (RA 9)
- ‘It is the strengthening of those organisations and I suppose only time will tell with this one but I do think through the process that a football club will suddenly realise that they can be a prominent voluntary sector body.’ (RA 1)
- ‘Some of our asset transfer requests come from communities that work with us… and they’ve built capacity and they’ve just got to a point where… that’s what empowerment is about, really. It’s about communities having the structures in place to be able to take on that.’ (RA 10)
Clearly, while descriptions were wide ranging, there is overlap – between Scottish Government, community transfer bodies and relevant authorities – in defining what community empowerment entails. RAs 3 and 8 struggled to define community empowerment, despite their support for the Act, while two relevant authorities (RAs 5 and 9) highlighted that what empowerment actually means differs between communities they serve – i.e. some communities are more or less empowered than others:
“It will vary from one community to another and there’s a danger actually that the sorts of communities that do come and approach us and maybe other organisations are already fairly well empowered. They’ve got the skills to actually take through quite a major piece of work to develop a business case, business plan, business model to implement all the work that they said that they’re going to do to understand what can and should be done on a particular piece of land and to be able to manage it. I think most of them would be reasonably empowered already.” (RA 5)
“There is a certain strata of society, it is quite visible in [area] because a lot of quite early retired, affluent people retire to [area]… So, you can get towns and villages where people have come in and (they) will get themselves on every committee and every organisation and make sure that resources and attention are focused on their agenda.” (RA 9)
RA 9 noted that the empowerment of one community can impact upon the empowerment of others, particularly if resources and attention are focused on the agendas of those frequently involved, for example ‘early retired, affluent people’:
“What you need to do is disempower other communities. In some ways, to reach other parts of the population, so those that are more vulnerable and less well-off and less articulate, I think we’ve reached a realisation that actually we need to sometimes hold back the first group … I suppose it’s a form of positive discrimination.” (RA 9)
Relatedly, one relevant authority felt that the process of submitting an asset transfer request relies on the community already possessing a certain level of empowerment:
“What has struck me is that across a lot of the community empowerment discussions … [asset transfer requests] are great but they’re used by the people who are already the most empowered or those communities that already have a very high level of capacity.” (RA 10)
Aspects of community empowerment are discussed further, under Section 7.3, in relation to inequalities.
7.1.2. Asset transfer and community empowerment
The interviewees reported the propensity for community empowerment to be linked to property and ownership: reflecting an understanding among some stakeholders that assets denote empowerment in themselves, rather than being a tool to help achieve other aims.
“Everybody seems to think that community empowerment is about property… [Communities taking control of services], to me, is what community empowerment should be about, is the community taking hold of something and running with it. I don’t think the community are doing that.” (RA 4)
“People shouldn’t get fixated about asset transfers. In many ways it’s a way to achieve something. It’s a means to an end.” (CTB 2)
Some interviewees recognised that assets are ’springboards’ (CTB 6), ‘vehicles’ (RA 3) or a ‘first step’ (CTB 8) toward increasing community empowerment; assets do not directly equate to empowerment:
“Asset transfer does not deliver community empowerment. You can’t deliver community empowerment through legislations. Legislation is an enabler. It creates the opportunities but community empowerment is very much a journey.” (RA 9)
“[The asset will help us to] achieve what it set out in the action plan, which is aspiration, vision, dreams or people… and keeping the community together and keeping the community spirit going.” (CTB 2)
CTB 2 noted that their asset may restore a quality of life to their community that was lost as a result of poorly run local assets and the undemocratic choices made by authorities over 30 years:
“It wasn’t [this community] that bulldozed their community centre. It wasn’t [this community] that destroyed their shopping centre. It wasn’t [this community] people that contaminated their land. It wasn’t [this community] people that put a civic dump on their doorstep, and it wasn’t [this community] that shut down one of the biggest employers 30 odd years ago. So, when you look back at [this community], they had social clubs, dances, football teams, they had three churches, they had guilds, they had all sorts of things. Historically [this community] has always been social and always been pretty active in what they do.” (CTB 2)
Other community transfer bodies noted that while they perceive potential in their asset transfer requests to increase community empowerment, they are yet to see real evidence of impact.
“It’s not came to fruition yet, so we need to wait and see. The only people who are probably delighted with the asset transfer right now is me and the committee, but once that’s up and running, then kids can come in and they’ll see it and go, ‘this is great!’. They’re part of that community.” (CTB 6)
That being said, CTB 6 have, through their asset transfer request, seen an increase in people volunteering in their communities – a key indicator of community empowerment, according to the Scottish Government. They were able to rely on community volunteers to renovate their asset.
“What we find is now you get loads of parents who want to volunteer as opposed to (just) Dads (of players) … or, ‘My wee boy plays for that team, so I’ll go in there.’ But you get loads of parents now and grandparents want to volunteer. They’ll come in and help. So the community’s come together.” (CTB 6)
Similarly, CTBs 2, 4 and 8 also report an increase in volunteers. CTB 8 note that, prior to their asset transfer request, they had not experienced comparable levels of volunteering in other community projects:
“We’ve got community volunteers coming forward to do work and contribute to the plans for the community woodland. Now, this is the first project we’ve had that we’ve been able to bring people out of the community and directly involve them in a project of this sort. So, looking forward, this is really bringing people out of the woodwork, people that have never had anything to do with the community council or [name of CTB] are now getting involved because this is a different kind of project, one where there is hands on involvement.” (CTB 8)
7.1.3. Potential challenges
The interviewees highlighted some potential challenges to community transfer bodies using asset transfers as a means to improving community empowerment.
Firstly, a challenge to increased community empowerment is the high level of responsibility that communities feel as a result of an asset transfer, when this is not necessarily matched with support services, funding or expertise. Myers et al. (2017) highlighted that, through asset transfer, funding opportunities not available to relevant authorities may become available to community transfer bodies (e.g. Community Fund, Scottish Land Fund), which may help sustain transferred assets.
While the availability of such funding may be a positive opportunity, one member of a community transfer body highlighted that, from their perspective, relevant authorities are ‘getting rid’ of assets that are in a poor state and require investment. CTB 3 state that their local authority is ‘passing on buildings that they can’t afford to keep and they can’t afford to do up and they’re passing on the problem to the communities to sort out themselves.’
CTB 3 are relying on funding to deliver the aims set out in their community proposal. This included demolishing the existing structure and building new premises to better meet the needs of the community and tourists. The community transfer body had sought funding to do this, but been refused. At the time of interviewing, CTB 3’s asset (toilet/visitor facilities) was costing the community money and representatives of the community transfer body were questioning the future sustainability of their ownership of the asset:
“It is a burden on the community but they are needed… I can’t say whether I feel at this point in time that the asset transfer of the [asset] is beneficial in one way or if it’s not beneficial. It’s beneficial in the fact that, yes, the [asset is] open for the community and the tourists, but then again at what cost to the community can we keep it open or are we now actually possibly going to have to close it down ourselves?” (CTB 3)
In contrast, CTB 6 note that they have successfully secured grant funding to cover asset renovations and, in addition to this, have been able to leverage local networks to carry out renovations at a low cost. While some community transfer bodies were able to draw from community members to complete professional work pro-bono, the cost of fees was also raised by other interviewees:
“The other thing [relevant authority] did constantly was cost us a fortune in legal fees. So, rather than being upfront to say, ‘To safeguard the [relevant authority’s] position, whichever makes sense, this is what we’re looking for’, they would wait until our lawyers went back to them and then would bring another question forward. Solicitors would answer that and then they would bring another question, and we constantly asked them, ‘Could you just give us a draft agreement so that we can…?’, and they wouldn’t do it.” (CTB 3)
The ability to draw from local individuals with relevant capacities is one reason why asset transfer requests may be more likely to be submitted from more advantaged communities or interest groups. Receiving pro-bono work from community members requires individuals who have relevant professional skills and can afford to complete the work for free. This is considered further in Section 9.
7.2. Improved access to services
According to Myers et al. (2017, p.29), asset transfer requests are ‘underpinned by an assumption that ownership, control, or use of land or buildings will provide a way for communities to drive change and achieve their own goals.’ They suggest that assets may provide a base for ‘activities and services that would not otherwise be accessible to members of a particular community’ (2017, p.29).
While all relevant authorities named within the Act have a statutory duty to publish annual reports which outline all asset transfer request activities, there is no requirement for relevant authorities to publish details surrounding the purposes of asset transfer requests. As such, we do not have full information about the purposes of all asset transfer requests submitted to date. For this evaluation we have collected data detailing the purposes of asset transfer requests wherever this was available, including from application forms and decision notices as well as from annual reports. The list of purposes of reported asset transfer requests to date is as follows:
- Men’s shed
- Allotments/community garden
- Sports and recreation activities
- Affordable housing
- Community hub
- Museum and heritage centre
- Music/art hubs
- Services to tackle loneliness, promoting life and parenting skills
- Services for people with physical and learning disabilities
- Car parking
- Toilet and visitor facilities
- Community woodland
Further information on asset purpose is displayed at Figure 3. Overall, there is an emphasis on developing community hubs and bringing the community together. While the purposes are wide-ranging, it is clear that assets are providing a base for activities and services. From the reports, it is not clear whether these services are otherwise inaccessible to members of a particular community. From the interviews, however, there are indications that asset transfers are enabling communities to provide services matched to local needs that are better than existing services or otherwise unavailable. These findings were presented at Section 6.1.2.
One asset transfer request in the sample was interesting in that it may deliver improved services to distinct groups, in different ways:
- Local community: the asset transfer request improves local conditions and road access, improving life quality, allowing local residents improved access local services.
- Tourists: Improved facilities at popular touristic attraction.
- Wider communities: the asset transfer request will generate income which will be reinvested into the community to offer further services.
Again, given the recent implementation of Part 5 of the Act, it is yet not possible to conclude that asset transfer requests are improving community access to services. However, the available data indicates that there is potential for this to be the case in the future.
7.3. Reduced inequalities of outcome
The Scottish Government is committed to action that reduces inequalities. Myers et al.’s (2017, p.29) Theory of Change argued that ‘asset transfer requests may contribute to a reduction in local inequalities of outcomes’. The report recognises, however, that one of the risks may be that asset transfer requests also increase inequalities: if there is greater take up by more advantaged, rather than disadvantaged, communities or groups within communities. This section considers whether there is evidence to suggest that asset transfer requests may reduce, or indeed exacerbate, inequalities of outcome.
As part of the application process, the Scottish Government Guidance on asset transfer requests (2017, p.43) states that a relevant authority should carry out an assessment of ‘whether the community transfer body is able to successful deliver the project, and make it sustainable’. Considering this, one of the questions outlined as part of the assessment process is ‘do members have appropriate skills, experience and qualifications to deliver the project, or does the body have a plan for engaging people who do?’
Although the analysis of annual reports suggests a spread of requests across areas of differing SIMD level (Figure 6), as highlighted at Section 7.1.1, several relevant authorities and the key stakeholder noted a trend for applications being submitted from so called ‘high capacity’ communities or groups within communities.
Relevant authorities and the key stakeholder described these communities as having significant professional expertise, often in the form of a well-established community organisation or development trust. Some interviewees suggested that the asset transfer request process is, in the most part, easily accessible to communities where there are sufficient levels of capacity, skills and knowledge to take on the ownership of an asset.
“There’s a danger actually that the sorts of communities that do come and approach us and maybe other organisations are already fairly well empowered…They’ve got the skills to actually take through quite a major piece of work to develop a business case, business plan, business model to implement all the work that they said that they’re going to do to understand what can and should be done on a particular piece of land and to be able to manage it. I think most of them would be reasonably empowered already. One of the things that we would be looking for actually is an ability to deliver and it’s… by definition, that would therefore mean the people already have an understanding on what we’re talking about, generally speaking, with one exception, is large bits of land that need to be managed to a degree.” (RA 5)
“Part of what you’re seeing with asset transfer is the already empowered and the articulate community taking advantage of it. What’ll happen I think is a mechanism that will allow those communities to continue getting the biggest share of the cake and the communities that are unable to organise themselves will get left.” (RA 2)
“Empowered communities can do asset transfer and be more empowered.” (RA 10)
“It tends to favour slightly more rural, more affluent communities where people have got time, and there is the potential that this may increase inequalities unless there is targeted activity in disadvantaged communities.” (Key Stakeholder)
One community transfer body, operating in a community which has SIMD rankings of between 1-2 (indicating high levels of multiple deprivation), noted that a lack of capacity and a lack of access to individuals with needed skills and expertise – made the process of applying intimidating and challenging:
“We’ve got to be experts in absolutely everything. We would go to the leader of the Council, we would be studying for weeks on end about planning and legal and all the rest of it… He would sit down and he would bring all these people with him, fire us with questions and we would be frantically trying to answer them, we would be absolute nervous wrecks, stressed out our nuts and... But when we asked him a question he would just go... turn to somebody on his right, ‘Can you answer that? Can you answer that?’… So why can’t communities have that bank [of experts]? We should have had the same bank of experts sitting at the side of the table with us during those negotiations. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken us ten years.” (CTB 2)
CTB 2 stated they are “not an area that has architects and lawyers and different things within the area so anything that we did bring in we had to pay a lot of money”. The composition of the local community, therefore, can have an impact on the ability to deal with asset transfer request processes. Conversely, another community transfer body in the sample (CTB 7), operating in a community which has SIMD rankings between 8-10, note that they found the asset transfer request process relatively straightforward. They could draw on the capacities of community members with professional backgrounds in finance, architecture, accounting, law, as well as individuals with experience in local activism, funding and establishing and managing community groups. CTB 7 had access to advisers and received resource support from private companies. All these individuals offered their services pro-bono to support the activities of CTB 7. Even with such available capacities, CTB 7 note that the process ‘took three years and by that time it was hard to keep the momentum of the local community up’. Finally, CTB 4 noted that, because of their professional background, they could navigate the process yet they also recognised that this may not be the experience of all community transfer bodies:
“You need, obviously, to be computer savvy, you need to know the words to use. It’s like in funding… when you go into funders. You need to know the key words… I suppose, in a way, I’m lucky because of the work I did before, I’m used to doing government reports, so I know what’s needed, but no, I do think it’s not easy in respect of the normal layperson if they’re not used to government rubbish.” (CTB 4)
As noted by one relevant authority, with the right resources and capacity building in disadvantaged communities, steps can be taken to enable participation:
“[The asset transfer request process] needs resources… it needs support… and it could be delivered through social enterprises, local intermediary organisations, and if you don’t put in that grassroots type of support for the communities that are more disadvantaged, the ones that will benefit from all the opportunities of asset transfer, there’s the risk that those will be the ones that don’t need the empowerment because they’re kind of further along the empowerment journey than the ones that could really benefit from it.” (RA 9)
This kind of additional support is encouraged by the Scottish Government Guidance on asset transfer requests (2017) and assumed within Myers et al.’s (2017) Theory of Change (Figure 1) proposed in the Evaluability Report. In some relevant authorities resources are available but the link between asset transfer and its potential to address certain types of inequalities has not been made explicit:
“We haven’t started off saying, ‘Let us focus on tackling poverty activity and link it to community asset transfer’. The resources are there…We don’t see community asset transfer as significantly linked to the tackling poverty work…but both sides know that if there’s opportunities, we would exploit them. It’s more a case of looking and saying whoever is interested in asset transfer, come to use regardless.” (RA 1)
To address inequalities through asset transfer requests, a more strategic approach may be necessary. This would require consideration of the specific ways asset transfer requests might be used effectively to address inequalities and more targeted support in line with the Scottish Government Guidance on asset transfer requests (2017). This would enable all communities to have the choice to use asset transfer requests where necessary and valued.
CTB 2 expressed concerns that officials were discriminating against their asset transfer requests because they come from a ‘working class community’ (SIMD ranks 1-3), yet favouring asset transfer requests submitted in more affluent communities:
“It feels as though it’s because we’re a working class community that really wouldn’t know what to do with a bit of land, even though we’ve demonstrated and we’ve proved it with [submitted asset transfer request], and then we hear that another community has now come into [CTB 2’s area] and been given an asset transfer to build an athletics stadium, and their asset transfer went through in a four-month period. Now, why was that? Is it because [neighbouring community] is esteemed as an affluent area and [CTB 2’s area] isn’t?” (CTB 2)
The neighbouring community, which has SIMD rankings of between 6- 9, is representative of the ‘slightly more rural, more affluent communities’ discussed previously by the key stakeholder. Whether CTB 2 are correct in their assumption, or whether the asset transfer request has progressed faster in the neighbouring community because of greater capacity or some other reason, these findings have implications for addressing inequalities.