The Localism Act 2012 gives communities four new rights: Community Right to Build, neighbourhood planning, Community Right to Challenge and Community Right to Bid. The first two of these are well explained by their names. The Right to Build provides communities with: “the right to build small-scale, site-specific projects without going through the normal planning application process” while the right to neighbourhood planning gives communities the right to draw up a plan for their area. Neither of these Rights are simple to exercise and, based on discussion at the event, it seems that in London at least, it may be quicker to go through the existing planning permission process than to use Right to Build.
Right to Challenge and Right to Bid are more cryptically named. The Right to Challenge is not a right for communities to challenge the decisions of councils (or anyone else), it’s a right to express an interest in delivering services that are currently delivering by the local authority or fire and rescue services ‘where they think they can do it differently and better‘.
The basic process is that, if a community group – usually a charity or social enterprise – thinks they could run a particular service better than the local authority (or service), they can put in an ‘Expression of interest’ which the local author has to consider. If the local authority accepts the challenge, the group making the challenge does not necessarily get to run the service – it’s put out to tender and anyone can bid to run it.
Slightly less confusingly, the Right to Bid does give community groups the right to bid ‘to buy and take over the running of assets that are of value to the local community‘. Of course, broadly speaking, anyone has the right to bid to buy anything from anyone else at any time. Things only become difficult when it comes to the questions over whether the owner wants to sell and whether the buyer can afford to buy.
The more specific use of Right to Bid is that it enables community groups to nominate assets of community value which the local authority has to consider adding to a local list of community assets. If a building is put on the list then – if and when the owner decides to sell it – community groups have a six-month window to raise the funds to make a bid to buy it.
As Annemarie Naylor of Locality’s Asset Transfer Unit explained at the event, whether or not Right to Bid enables lots of community organisations to buy lots of buildings if the owner doesn’t want to sell to them, the process will enable community groups to demonstrate to the local authority that particular buildings are valued by the community.
The other people on my table at the event were mostly from relatively small local community organisations. The general feeling was that while it was good to be aware of these new Rights coming into existence, they were unlikely to be directly applicable to what we were doing.
Although the practicalities were clearly explained by Locality’s Glen Arradon, there was confusion about the motivations behind Right to Challenge. Some said that, as they understood it, the government’s policy was to contract out as many public services as possible anyway so they couldn’t understand why an extra mechanism was needed or why community organisations needed to be involved. Others felt that while some local authorities might be keener to put services out to tender than others, there was no clear value in community organisations trying to make them do so if they didn’t want to – as the most likely result would be that the contract would end up going to a private sector provider anyway.
The key benefit of the Rights for charities and social enterprises seemed to be that, while they might not be practically useful in themselves, their launch had been accompanied by the launch of a grant funding programme, managed by the Social Investment Business, to support organisations looking to buy property or take on the running of public services – whether or not they specifically used the Rights to do so.
While there may be scepticism, many local authorities have already set up websites instructing local organisations on how to make use of the new Rights – such as this one on Right to Challenge from Hammersmith & Fulham – and the rest will ultimately have to do so. Some organisations definitely will attempt to use the Rights, some local authorities will welcome that.
Locality’s My Community Rights website provides further guidance on what the Rights are and how to make use of them. As the debate about charities and social enterprises running public services (and taking on community assets) intensifies, these Rights will definitely be part of the discussion. It’s too soon to say how big a part of it they’ll be.