Article by Josh Cottell
Centre for London recently published research, in partnership with the Friends Provident Foundation, which investigates how local authorities can get more out of the assets they already control by engaging with local people and partners to design new approaches to using their money and property. Our research looks at how local authorities in London can apply these approaches, where the city’s complex governance structure and many overlapping boundaries pose challenges as well as opportunities.
Local authorities across the UK oversee a lot of assets. In London alone, they spend billions of pounds on goods and services, manage properties and land totalling more than one-fifth of the city’s area, and control tens of billions of pounds in local government pension funds. Councils across the UK have become increasingly interested in new approaches to managing these assets, sometimes called ‘community wealth building,’ or ‘social value approaches’. Depending on local priorities, local authorities can use them to support a wide variety of aims.
We interviewed nearly fifty experts, including twenty-five officers and councillors in four local authorities in London who kindly gave their time to share their experiences. We spoke to people who had taken steps to support small local businesses to win council contracts to provide goods and services, leading to increased local employment and spend in the area. We spoke to others who engaged with their local community to decide how to use a disused office block that was standing vacant, and used their input to convert it to a coworking space for local artists and entrepreneurs. And we heard from some local authorities who had directed significant parts of their pension fund towards low- or zero-carbon investments, and some who were exploring investing in local projects to boost their local economy.
We hosted focus groups with Londoners to hear their priorities for getting the most out of council-controlled assets, and how they wanted to be involved in decisions about them. Many of the people we spoke to expressed a strong interest in having a say in how local buildings are used, and the variety of ideas they put forward for how to do so underscores the need for meaningful engagement.
We encountered countless success stories and passionate advocates for these approaches, which are flourishing across London. But some issues hold local authorities in London back. To make the most of their assets, local authorities should decide local priorities in conversation with local people and partners and publish what – and how much – they want to achieve. Giving local people a real say in both the council’s aims and how specific assets, like an empty building, are used, can help to empower communities. By building connections with other local authorities and large local institutions, councils can improve their impact and reduce their costs by sharing best practice, sourcing low-cost modular training, and streamlining processes.
While novel approaches to using assets that councils already control won’t be a silver bullet, they are one tool that local authorities can use to boost their economies. Our research identifies common challenges that local authorities face in doing so, and recommends steps that they can take to learn from what’s worked elsewhere while suiting their approach to local needs. You can read the full report, including case studies of best practice here or click on the image below
Josh Cottell is Research Manager at Centre for London