Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015: asset transfer requests - evaluation

Findings from an independent evaluation assessing the implementation of Part 5 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 – asset transfer requests. The evaluation was commissioned by the Scottish Government and was conducted by researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University.

6. Intermediate outcomes of asset transfer requests

This section explores the intermediate outcomes associated with the implementation of Part 5 of the Act. The outcomes identified within the Theory of Change by Myers et al.’s (2017) are ‘increased community ownership’, ‘control and use of relevant authority assets’; and ‘culture change within relevant authorities’. In addition to these outcomes, our evaluation identified further intermediate outcomes that might be associated with asset transfer requests: increased obligations of community transfer bodies and community cohesion and capacity building.

6.1. Increased community ownership, control and use

A key aim of the Act is to empower community bodies through the ownership or control of assets. In line with this aim, Part 5 of the Act enables communities to identify relevant authority assets and apply to own, control or use such assets to benefit the community. There is an expectation that community ownership, control or use of assets ‘will support communities to drive change and achieve their own goals, lead to better services matched to local needs’. These, in turn, should lead to better outcomes for communities (Myers et al., 2017, p.23). The interview data gathered during this evaluation demonstrated evidence that supports these expectations.

6.1.1. Driving change, achieving goals

Some interviewees highlighted that asset transfer requests have allowed community transfer bodies to develop a degree of autonomy within their community – they are able to set goals, based on community needs, and take steps to achieve these independent of the local authority. Where they would previously approach relevant authorities (“rather than having to keep going to the council: ‘Can we do this, can we do that, can we do the other?’’’ (CTB 4)), they no longer require the involvement of relevant authorities in setting and pursuing goals within their communities. Relatedly, some community transfer bodies felt that, when compared with relevant authorities, they are better placed to drive change and achieve goals.

“Putting assets in the community hands unlocks things that would take statutory bodies a very, very long time to get around to, if ever.” (CTB 5)

“The clear, actually transformational thing for them is that a community has got an asset now. It’s got a place the community can go that’s theirs that they can do what they want.” (RA 10)

Many community transfer bodies commented on local authorities being unable to take action to drive change within communities due to being under-resourced (previously raised at Section 5.1).

“[Local authority] are washing their hands of it, but I understand why they’re washing their hands of things. They have no money.” (CTB 3)

“What are we getting from this? It’s going to be your building, you’re going to be able to do what you want and nobody’s going to interfere. That’s what we’re talking about, rather than having to keep going to the council. The council is not bothering because they haven’t got the time or money to even think about it.” (CTB 4)

Interviewees commented on the potential for community transfer bodies to achieve their goals in a timelier fashion, when compared to the slower speed at which relevant authorities are able to do things. Enabling wider democracy among community stakeholders through transferred assets helps to drive change and achieve goals that the community value:

“It gives people a bit of democracy. If you own something and… [my aim is to give the community] their own sense of pride and democracy.” (CTB 6)

6.1.2. Intention to deliver better services for local needs

According to the perspectives of community transfer bodies, community groups are well placed to identify local needs and design and deliver services to address these needs. Asset transfer requests are a mechanism through which communities can achieve this.

“Sometimes you have to take things into your own hands and try and get on with it and if there’s a challenge … you need to go to [relevant authority] and say, ‘Look, you’re not doing your job here, can we do it? Can you give us something towards it?’, even if it’s on a service level agreement or we come to an agreement with them that we’ll do it and they don’t interfere with us.” (CTB 3)

CTB 5 from a relatively remote region discussed conflicting council-wide and community priorities. They highlighted the relative insignificance of an issue affecting a smaller community to the wider population. For this community transfer body, the transfer of an asset has allowed them to develop a local solution ‘to actually make a difference’.

“Communities being able to actually make a difference there, to effectively do things that you would have expected or hoped the statutory body might, makes a real difference… [relevant authority] priorities are based on where the need is, and [our] need on paper is tiny, so that is always going to be difficult to unlock.” (CTB 5)

According to RA 4, community empowerment should, above all else, be ‘about services and the delivery of services for the benefit of the community’. A community transfer body in a different area highlighted that their asset transfer had allowed them to offer valuable health services to the local community:

“We are going to be able to offer a whole new service because there’ll be a drop in centre, which there hasn’t been before, and…we’re going to have massage therapy, hopefully again physiotherapy… That’s our aim, is to provide a home, small, warm environment for people with disabilities, and it doesn’t have to be MS or anything, to feel quite welcome and easy to access and feel that it is part and parcel and somewhere they can come to and enjoy and bring the family and not feel isolated… As far as we are aware there is no drop in centre that’s available to anybody.” (CTB 4)

Another community transfer body, CTB 2, highlighted that they are now able to provide services and products that were previously unavailable at the local level (such as mental health services and youth clubs). Through the asset, CTB 2 was also making services accessible to wider groups including the elderly population that could not make use of sport centre facilities due to accessibility issues.

6.2. Relevant authority culture change

Part 5 of the Act gives communities an opportunity to take the initiative to identify assets of interest, and places a duty on relevant authorities to agree an asset transfer request unless there are reasonable grounds for refusal. As a result, Part 5 aims to shift the balance of power towards community bodies: asset transfer requests are a mechanism for changing relationships between relevant authorities and communities. This argument was supported by one relevant authority, who noted:

“The way the Act is written around asset transfer, it’s quite a useful tool in changing that power dynamic between agencies and communities.” (RA 9)

A process of culture change takes time and the introduction of Part 5 of the Act is relatively recent (January 2017). Clear evidence of culture change will only occur over time. There was evidence, however, that relevant authorities were taking steps to create change by challenging internal beliefs and values:

“As much as my job has been about outwardly creating things with communities, it’s been as much about challenging internal beliefs and cultures and values. Initially quite a lot of reaction from staff in other services about, ‘How can we possibly give away this valuable asset?’. So, a bit of hard stick with them by saying, ‘Well, that’s the legislation’, but a bit of more softer persuading type stuff… so, a lot of the persuading would be about trying to get them to see the bigger picture of the outcomes we’re trying to achieve and how transferring assets can help us achieve those outcomes.” (RA 2)

That being said, some relevant authorities and community transfer bodies highlighted that the culture of authorities can be a barrier to effective implementation of asset transfer request legislation. Most of the community transfer bodies indicated that they had experienced difficulties with relevant authorities during the asset transfer request process. While one community transfer body described the relationship as ‘hostile’, others highlighted that authorities had been ‘obstructive’ and viewed asset transfer request inquiries as nuisances.

“I think that their aim all along was ‘how can we get rid of this nuisance? This big-bearded-person that comes along and rattles on our cage’… maybe that’s being a bit over-defensive. I felt it was a little bit, ‘how can we get rid of him?’” (CTB 1)

“It’s not easy and you’re challenging a structure who does not want to change, who has a fear of losing jobs, of losing their roles.” (CTB 2)

“I’m not knocking the council but, at times, they can be so obstructive.” (CTB 6)

Another relevant authority indicated that communities are also adjusting to shifting power relations (“It’s almost like, ‘why would you give us that? Why would you help us?’” (RA 1)); they note that the asset transfer request process has generated ‘a lot’ of suspicion from one community member, in particular:

“[A member of the community]’s just clearly very suspicious about the council … I’m pushing saying, ‘look, this is the process. Basically, the expectation is a) we will help you and b) we will approve this. If you tick the boxes, if you can give us a business plan that shows you will be able to manage this asset properly, then it’s yours. We’re not going to suddenly say ‘no’ and we’re not going to delay you for five years to do all that’. It’s just funny to see that mind-set: council – bad, which is definitely there… They can be cynical at times about the council, in particular, but I do see that voluntary development and folk suddenly realising that they can do things but it is early days.” (RA 1)

6.3. Increased obligations of community transfer bodies

This section explores evidence of an additional outcome of asset transfer requests which has emerged from this evaluation: that community transfer bodies experience an increase in obligation and responsibility.

Some community transfer bodies with successful asset transfer requests reported that ownership had brought with it a new accountability and a transfer of responsibility – from relevant authority to community transfer body. Indeed, two community transfer bodies felt a new pressure and responsibility to maintain the asset.

“If we didn’t own it then we wouldn’t be as involved in caring about it.” (CTB 7)

“It’s the community’s responsibility, and if you give the community responsibility for something then the community will look after it … if it’s somebody else’s, you can say, ‘Well, it’s nothing to do with us, it’s theirs’. This tended to be, I would say, the problem initially with our building. Well, we’re not going to spend this money on it when it’s going to go back to the council, whereas if it’s your building, your community’s building, then you will look after it and people will use it because if not they lose it.” (CTB 4)

For these community transfer bodies, caring for and maintaining the assets were in the community’s interest and in line with their goals. Some interviewees questioned whether and to what extent the responsibilities that community transfer bodies assume when they take over ownership of an asset could become a burden over time. This is considered further in Section 7.1.3.

“Think about where you’re going to be five years down the line, ten years down the line. Is there a whole load of people that are going to be doing it or is it just one or two movers and when they fall out with the committee the thing falls into disarray? And then, what happens to the asset at that point?” (RA 3)

“They’ll be all excited about getting something and then realise what it actually takes to own an asset in the long term and the amount of commitment. So I’d say that the support around it is crucial as well, so it needs to integrate with other schemes, with things like the Scottish Land Fund where they’ve got much more experience in helping communities acquiring their own assets and there’s a lot of guidance and help available there. So the legislation in that transfer process is an essential part but there’s a much bigger picture as well, and communities still need support in that.” (CTB 5)

The limited detail surrounding transferred assets and community transfer body project failure/winding up is provided at Sections 14.5 and 14.6 in the Scottish Government Guidance on asset transfer requests (2017) for relevant authorities.

Given that this research was conducted soon after the enactment of Part 5 in January 2017, considering longer-term processes such as community transfer body project failure/winding up was beyond the scope of the evaluation. Future research could explore whether and how these issues affect asset transfer projects after they have been in place over a longer time period.

6.4. Community cohesion and capacity building

Beyond the ownership of an asset and the longer-term benefits that it may bring, a further potential outcome of Part 5 of the Act that was identified through this research relates to asset transfer requests supporting the stability and sustainability of community bodies, with respondents suggesting that asset transfer requests can help to create a stronger sense of community identity, cohesion and involvement. Indeed, some community transfer bodies and key stakeholders identified the asset transfer request process as potentially ‘transformational’ for a small community – both in terms of building cohesion and capacity building.

“It brings a community together and it creates networks and knowledge just simply by them going through the process.” (RA 2)

“What [the asset] will do is it will bring the community together more and that was the whole reason of doing it…Community spirit, the cohesion, that’s what it’s all about… Bringing people together, different groups together. Having partnerships with colleges, schools, things like that, so that… we’re all integrated as opposed to being divided.” (CTB 6)

“My advice to any other community is that it is something to help build your community around. It gives you a focus, particularly if you’ve nothing else to start with… You do need something tangible that people can actually get a grip of. You can’t just talk about aspirations. You really need something people can muster around and that’s what we’ve found with the community woodland. We’re beginning to get that community coming together around that and hopefully we will continue to build that.” (CTB 8)

By engaging with the asset transfer request process, ‘a sense of community is developing’ for the members of CTB 7 as they worked with key stakeholders including the local primary school (including the faculty, parents, and pupils), the police, development trust, community members and private sector. For CTB 7, the participatory nature of the process had enabled a stronger sense of community, cohesion and involvement – an underlying rationale behind the Act. They noted that, through a process of participation and engagement, ‘there’s just been an awful lot more chat about what’s possible and being aware of each other and supporting each other.’

“[Putting the application form together has] brought us together… I’ve got to know my neighbours. I mean, it’s a disgrace for my husband and I to have been here… since ’75 and I didn’t know these people properly, and I’ve had one or two very good friends as neighbours, but now I know nearly everybody here … it’s lovely.” (CTB 7)

Finally, in terms of capacity building, some community transfer bodies noted that the process of submitting asset transfer requests and working collaboratively with community members and organisations may build the capacity of communities.

“It’s just opened my eyes and I’m lucky enough to have had the time to do it and be bothered with it, and I’ve learned… any time you learn anything from anybody else, you can bring it back to your own group, and they’ve said, ‘We’ll come and talk to you about how you can do this’. So, there’s been a lot of spin offs from different communities.” (CTB 7)

RA 2 noted that managing transferred assets can make communities better able to assume responsibility for additional services over time. RA 2 notes that increasing communities’ capacities to make the most of transferred assets may depend on the provision of support services to community transfer bodies to help them to see develop the potential of the assets.

“The support isn’t there to enable them to see that as something they can build around. So, if you take over a toilet now, three or four years from now they could maybe be running traffic facilities, roundabouts, or whatever.” (RA 2)

Capacity building is further discussed under ‘Activities’ in Section 9.



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