My first reaction is curiosity. The Department for Work and Pensions owns a single floor of an office block near where I grew up. Which is a bit random. The Ministry of Justice owns north London’s favourite eyesore, Archway Tower. Who knew? JRF's London office is down the road from a mysterious Government-owned warehouse. Spooky.
The second is a bit more serious: because understanding what the Government owns is pretty important for the future of our communities.
Developers have long been irritated that Government holds onto land. The Ministry of Defence, with its tracts of exercise areas in semi-suburban settings, and the Department for Transport, with sites handily located near transport hubs, are good examples of departments traditionally seen as hoarding plots that could happily be used for homes and jobs. These maps show the extent of the public land-bank.
They're also a sign that this Government is looking to get rid of much of its estate.
In that way, it's similar to another set of maps, compiled by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), showing the extent of Local Authority-owned property. The DCLG maps were launched as an aid for releasing cash to protect services – state assets are worth something, and in deficit-reducing times, that means sell-offs.
For the people living in those areas, this could be great.
JRF's programme on community assets shows that it's possible for communities to take over a building, service or facility previously run by their local council. Whether it's managing electricity generation, running a sports centre or owning a park, where it works well communities can reap a host of benefits – ranging from improved services, to a greater sense of community identity, to increased income.
But a Glorious Future Sunlit Uplands of Utopian Community Ownership won't happen by community groups diving in without any practical thinking. Unsurprisingly, an asset can become a liability if it’s badly managed or was inappropriate for community ownership in the first place. People need to develop appropriate financial and legal structures, and entrepreneurial organisations and individuals need to back up their aspirations with planning. All of that takes time. This makes for interesting times in community ownership. Government divesting itself of property is a massive opportunity. But if the potential for community ownership is to be realised, the transfer of services and assets from state to civil society needs some critical planning. The risk of rushing is all too real.