About 10 years ago I met someone who had become the owner of a significant piece of infrastructure (a port) as a community interest company, previously they had a been a charity and a community group, they ended up buying the port because no one else would take it on and consequently it was very cheap – £1. The purchase price, of course, was just the start of the trouble they had got themselves into but this port was crucial to the life of the community, so now as a form of business they were setting about transforming it via grants and initiatives.
I was reminded of this as I have engaged with the community in my hometown trying to take back control of their swimming pool. This pool is significant to me for many reasons; I swam and taught swimming there, I was a lifeguard there, and it was of enormous importance to my grandparents. My grandmother swam them for as long as she was able, and my grandfather died beside a picture of him greeting Princess Anne at its opening. You might say I have investments in it.
If I draw back from the immediate problems of taking the pool back and see it as a broader problem of rural communities taking control of their assets, then some more widespread issues appear. Most of these relate to how power is unevenly distributed and the dense networks of interwoven organisations that characterise the modern state but specifically I note:
1 – Asymmetries of information: the local state and its partners know a lot that is operationally important and would empower the community to make good decisions, but they are not obliged to share it. This imbalance leads to the danger that some assets are being dumped on the community (see the port above) so that they and not the Councils own the failure.
2 – Poor governance: this is independent of party politics and is a broader phenomenon. The Somerset paper ‘The Leveller‘ has pointed out how many local MP’s have consistently voted for the cutting of budgets of local councils and then blamed their peers in local authorities. Many of the local councillors are struggling to imagine how to manage the cuts or manage the process of reimagining the local state. Rather than working on problem-solving as the local state dis-integrates they continue with partisan manoeuvring.
3 – ‘Sock-puppet’ charities/not-for-profits and contractors: since the advent of the big society a range of not for profits and charities have appeared in the space vacated by the state. These don’t make money or have charitable purposes, but the senior staff get paid well and are secured, but they do not necessarily contribute to the broader aims of the community as their goals come first. This situation is familiar as Max Weber noted that many organisations become more interested in securing themselves rather than the purposes they were set up for but without proper oversight, this is very easy for these organisations. They don’t receive any money other than from the state, or opportunities are given to them by the state (socket puppetism), but they have resources and endowments community groups don’t.