Route to local takeover of village halls made easier

COMMUNITIES wanting to take over and manage local assets such as halls and community centres have been given the green light.

Scottish Borders Council (SBC) agreed a way forward for local groups to take over land and buildings at its last meeting.

Culture spokesman Councillor Graham Garvie said: “Community asset transfer can both empower local communities and safeguard cherished buildings and facilities at a time when there is severe pressure on council budgets and diminishing opportunities to invest in growing services.”

Councillors agreed on procedures and guidance for any community organisations wanting to take on the management role.

A special cross-departmental council asset transfer team will help groups assess options and put together a business case before working with them on what would be the best way forward – a management agreement, a lease or outright transfer.

“If following a detailed evaluation of the business case, transfer is considered unfeasible, the transfer team will consult local councillors and, where the property is common good, with the local common good working group on an alternative strategy for the building,” SBC’s community services business manager, Iain MacAulay, wrote in his report, which was placed before councillors for the meeting.

The steps are aimed at making sure there is a community needs rather than a property led approach, said Mr MacAulay.

“Where a community asset transfer is purely property led, it can leave an organisation struggling to cope with the financial burden of running the transferred property and in some cases can result in the failure of the venture, particularly if there is insufficient demand from the community to use the premises. The process and procedures set down in the guidance are a community needs rather than property led approach.”

The transfer programme is expected to save the council up to £140,000 over the next three years.

“Significant cost savings can be secured from transfer to community management. Property constituted community organisations will be entitled to relief from rates.

“Community organisations are often better positioned to engage voluntary effort and forge local partnerships to keep the buildings accessible and to increase their use as they are attuned to local need and demand and can consequently increase footfall and vibrancy and improve income generation.”

But he warned: “Community organisations may have to shoulder some additional core costs, for example insurance and audit.”

But the council could incur costs if work needs done on the condition of buildings to be transferred – though that would be considered case by case – or where title deeds are complex and legal work is needed.

The change will create extra work for council staff and there is a chance of community organisations failing – though that should be mitigated with by a “rigorous” initial assessment, wrote Mr MacAulay.

Outright transfers would only go ahead in “exceptional circumstances” so as to avoid reducing the council’s assets and not restrict its borrowing capacity, he added.

Already St Andrew’s Church in Galashiels is on a short-term lease to a local community group and Sports Duns is making use of the former Berwickshire High School playing fields, former gym and games hall.

Corporate improvement spokesperson Councillor Michael Cook said: “Our communities have already shown interest and appetite in taking forward such initiatives. Birgham, and in my own ward of East Berwickshire, Burnmouth, Grantshouse and St Abbs have all made progress with community transfer projects.

“In the case of St Abbs, transfer of the old school to the community on a long lease has seen a LEADER supported programme of some total investment of £277,000 to transform this building into a vibrant community centre.

“It is a measure of what is possible, and we are keen to support our communities in moving forward with similar projects.”