The race to save publicly owned buildings in Leeds and beyond

Bramley Baths. PIC: Lizzie Coombes
Bramley Baths. PIC: Lizzie Coombes
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England’s publicly owned buildings and spaces are being sold off “on a massive scale” says a recent report. Fiona Evans looks at what is being done to save some of them.

Jack Prince is a familiar face at the swimming pool where five days a week he can be found taking a dip within the Grade II listed Edwardian bath house.

The 87-year-old grandfather can still remember visiting Bramley Baths in Leeds as a child and later attending dances there.

These days Jack also helps out in the community garden at the side of the baths.

“It’s a lovely social thing,” he said. “We see the same people every morning, Monday to Friday. Everyone is friendly. The water is always nice and warm. The staff are friendly, helpful and attentive. It’s a lovely, thriving community hub.”

The popular, well-used facility, which opened in 1904, is described as “a place powered by people, and steam, by conversations, friendships and masses of community spirit.”

And it was this spirit which fuelled its survival when budgetary pressures on the public purse came knocking on its door in 2011.

Faced with the potential closure of the baths, residents and local organisations pulled together to produce a business plan, raise funds and transfer it to the community.

Bramley Baths: Riding high on a wave of success

The building is owned by the local authority but managed as an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS), a not-for-profit organisation with social aims run for the benefit of the community.

Such is its success that Bramley Baths is highlighted as a “shining example of community ownership” in a recent report, “The Great British Sell Off,” but many other such places face a different fate.

“England’s vital publicly owned buildings and spaces are being sold off on a massive scale for private use and short-term profit,” warns the report from Locality, the national membership network for community organisations.

It adds: “They are our libraries, youth centres, allotments and public swimming pools. These are the everyday places where extraordinary things happen, where local people come together, access vital services and support each other.”

On average more than 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off every year, according to the report.

“It’s quite alarming that this number of properties are being sold and at the same time we do not have a complete picture about the kind of properties and who they are being sold to,” said Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Locality, the charity which compiled the report.

“Once these places are sold they are gone forever. Councils are under pressure financially but once they are gone they are gone. You might have plugged your budget hole for one year but then what do you do? It’s so short-sighted.

“Some of this land will be absolutely right to be sold to developers on the market but many of these buildings have important community uses and what we know is that most councils are not actively considering community ownership as a viable alternative.

“This is not about bashing councils. We understand they are under pressure. But community ownership can give a building, a piece of land, an ongoing community use, because the local community focuses all its attention on making that building work.

“This is about people being able to use spaces and places for the whole community. If you sold off a historic building for luxury housing you would still be able to see the building but it would only benefit a small number of people. For us it’s about saving important spaces for communities to come together.”

Across the country people are stepping up to protect local cherished spaces for public use.

Earlier this year Shotley Heritage Charitable Community Benefit Society Ltd, made up of 520 community investors, bought Shotley Pier in Suffolk from its private owner and The Crown Estate.

Their vision is to repair the derelict Victorian pier and open it to the public, create a visitors’ centre and allow boats to dock.

“I have lived here for 22 years and I have never been able to go on it because it was derelict,” said Sally Chicken, vice chairman of the society. “There is an impatience to get it repaired. We know we have a long way to go but the excitement and ambition is definitely there. People want to get out there and use it.”

“The Great British Sell Off” was the result of a Freedom of Information request made by Locality to all 353 local authorities in England in January 2018.

The charity received 233 responses with usable data to several questions. The number of annual sales was extrapolated from an England wide average and regional averages from the sample of 55 councils who specifically gave information about the number of sales of publicly owned buildings and spaces from 2012/2013 to 2016/17.

This indicated the average number of publicly owned buildings and spaces sold off each year was 4,131.

Locality hopes its Save Our Spaces campaign for community ownership will protect publicly owned spaces and buildings for everyone.

The charity wants to increase the number of buildings and spaces taken into community ownership, and reduce the amount sold into private hands or left empty.

“Our concern is that more councils will be looking to sell buildings off,” said Tony. “At the moment most councils do not have a policy for proactive community ownership, so while of course some sales are absolutely appropriate, we know that many of the sales include valuable community spaces. So councils need to think about the long-term benefits rather than only short-term financial pressure.”