This summer a major Government initiative was launched to help communities save vital local assets that are at risk of closure. Amidst the pandemic it received little publicity but it is one of the most significant schemes to support rural constituencies like ours that I have seen in the 11 years that I have been an MP. This is because facilities that struggle for financial sustainability are often in rural areas. A village shop or post office that might have once been thriving is now having to battle with online shopping and commuters going to the supermarket on the way home from work. A village pub that might have once been packed each night may now be struggling as people drink more at home, consume less alcohol in general (in itself no bad thing) and eat out less often. A welcome improvement in responsible attitudes to drink driving is also a factor.
The Community Ownership Fund (COF) was launched in July, backed by £150 million of Government funding. It is part of the Government’s £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund which was set up to ensure investment reaches every part of the UK and doesn’t just focus on our major urban centres and London in particular. The fund will run for 4 years with at least 8 bidding rounds in total. The first round has already taken place, the second will open in December and the third next May.
Successful applicants will benefit from grants of up to £250,000 to meet up to 50% of the costs of acquiring an asset that is at risk or a £50,000 grant (which doesn’t need to be matched) to cover project development costs or provide working capital after a successful acquisition. Projects may include sporting and leisure facilities, cinemas and theatres, music venues, museums, galleries, parks, pubs, post office buildings and shops.
I have seen many successful community acquisitions in our constituency over recent years. The old Methodist Church in Ashburton, which has been transformed into an arts centre, is one example and the Stoke Canon Inn, which has been run as a community pub since 2012, is another. I held a meeting at this great pub last week to discuss further fundraising opportunities and to see ‘the hub’ – a new creative cabin on the premises that will provide a valuable space for community groups to meet. I am optimistic that this major new fund will lead to more success stories like these.
I would strongly urge any town or village in Central Devon with an at-risk community asset to see if the COF could benefit them. The eligibility criteria is strict – and rightly so – as the Government will want to ensure tax payers money is being spent wisely. Applicants will need to demonstrate the value of the asset to local people and that the asset can be run sustainability in the long-term.