Social entrepreneur Ben Metz argues that civil society needs to realise the opportunity for mass public ownership
In his comment piece in this Sunday's Observer
, Andy Wightman asks us to “Imagine a Britain of small-scale forestry, of farm forestry, of small- scale rural businesses, of community forests”. Such a scenario seems implausible given current trends in policy.
Wightman rightly points to recent government statements regarding the sale of forestry land as an indication of future direction. If the Public Bodies Bill
is passed ministers will have the power to sell off a whole raft of public assets, including the forests.
He draws comparison between this “shallow and nihilistic land grab” and the alternative models of land ownership adopted by France and Scandinavia. Around 20% of French forest is owned by 11,000 communes, whilst Scandinavian woods are characterised by local enterprise and community usage.
Wightman argues that the Public Bodies Bill threatens to take us closer to the former. But the flip side is that these new rights make community ownership a legal possibility. Public assets are up for grabs, and there is nothing to stop communities standing up and demanding they be given the chance to manage them.
This sense of optimism underpins the work of The Waterways Project
. The Arms Length Body (British Waterways) that currently manages 2,200 miles of the canals and rivers in the UK is about to become a charitable organisation. We see this process of transition as an opportunity for communities and social enterprises to play a significant role in the management of their natural infrastructure.
But, in reality, the debate surrounding the transfer of assets out of the public sector is dominated by fear and scepticism. The public is sceptical of the government's intentions and civil society is fearful of the implications for their own organisations. Wightman is right to argue that community action is needed, but the debate needs to be framed in a different way.
Politicians, civil society and the wider public should focus on the once in a lifetime opportunity we are currently faced with. Communities should drive policy by demonstrating their capacity and overwhelming enthusiasm for a new way of working, one which sees civil society as partners in the provision of public services.
The Waterways Project is determined to drive this policy agenda throughout government and civil society. We hope that by influencing the shape of the new waterways organisation we will demonstrate the plausibility of such an approach as well as the shear scale of the broader opportunity.
In order to convince a sceptical public, the government needs to demonstrate that policy measures such as the Public Bodies Bill are not driven solely by a desire to cut costs, but are underpinned by a commitment to empower local communities.
Ben Metz is a social entrepreneur and activist, as well as founder of the The Waterways Project @ CIVA
For more on this subject, see also ResPublica's most recent report arguing for new rights for community asset ownership "To Buy, To Bid, To Build"