Only a few years ago, our government unleashed an economic programme of austerity, in a bid to curb the country’s deficit and deal with the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.
Aside from many thousands of public sector workers whose jobs were phased out, arguably the people hit the hardest by this austerity were those in post-industrial communities, which had already been hit hard by decades of decline. With cuts imposed upon them, our local authorities began to review where they could make savings and had to make extremely difficult decisions, the effects of which we are still feeling.
When our community centres, swimming pools, local libraries and other fundamental public assets began to take the flak – closing down at an alarming rate – the shock and sense of unfairness were palpable.
Many communities fought back. They were angry because they understand the true value of their local infrastructure. They knew (and know) better than anyone that a swimming pool provides much more than just an opportunity to exercise, or that a library’s offer goes far beyond the simple act of lending books.
At the time of the cuts and with many questions unanswered, it was easy to fall into a trap of seeing it as black and white, good versus evil, “our politics versus your politics”. Why were such essential services overlooked? How could any national decision-maker even think they understand the true value of a local community asset?
In hindsight, something has become especially clear. The evidence that we previously needed for making the case to keep many of our public assets had been lacking. Aside from reporting the number of people through the door, how exactly can you measure the true value of a community centre? Custodians of local resources, services and projects all intrinsically know this value. But the key to communicating it is by conducting an effective analysis and conveying the findings through economic impact, which like it or not, presents a quantifiable and comparable output.
As an example of this, we can look at the South Manchester community-owned library where I work. Through a recent wellbeing analysis, we have measured that the library generated almost £1.5 million in social impact over the last year. This valuation is evidence-based and, importantly, it uses a methodology accepted at a government level. Yet while £1.5 million is clearly an impressive economic contribution for a local library, this valuation is also a huge understatement. It doesn’t take into account whether everybody living in proximity to the library can easily access the service, or how the library’s volunteers might wish to progress with their acquired skills (as just a couple of examples).
Although it has its limits, when the outputs of a community asset can be measured in such a quantifiable manner, this presents a reasonably level playing field for assessing their worth – especially powerful when it comes to making a case for such assets. And the message is clear: by adapting to the challenges and speaking in monetary terms – a language that can be understood at various authority levels – everybody should be able to see the value in community assets.
Rob Willis is centre development and partnership manager for One Manchester. He is currently overseeing development at the Place at Platt Lane (pictured), a community library and resource centre in South Manchester that offers a range of activities and services for local people (www.theplaceonline.co.uk)