So why should investors always have the upper hand in “development” plans when the resource at stake is a beloved building or public space? Why should the divine right of capital necessarily prevail?
How refreshing to learn that England has created a special legal process for preventing market enclosures of community pubs. There is even a Community Pubs Minister, whose duty it is to recognize the value of pubs to communities and to help safeguard their futures. So far, some 100 pubs have been formally listed as “assets of community value.”
I know, I know – what would Margaret Thatcher say? "Damned government interventions in the free market!" Fortunately, that kind of market fundamentalism has abated for a bit, enough that the Community Pubs Minister -- Brandon Lewis, a Conservative Party member of Parliament! -- now extols “the importance of the local pub as part of our economic, social and cultural past, present and future.” He adds: “We have known for hundreds of years just how valuable our locals are. Not just as a place to grab a pint but also to the economies and communities they serve and that is why we are doing everything we can to support and safeguard community pubs from closure.”
The topic was recently featured in The New York Times, which noted that 7,000 pubs have closed since the 2008 financial crisis, “leaving some small communities confronting the unthinkable: life without a ‘local,’ as pubs are known.” For example, residents of the village of Hampstead are distraught that a group of outside investors have bought the 300-year-old Old White Bear pub, which they plan to convert into a six-bedroom luxury house.
Some 2,000 Hampstead residents have signed a petition to have the Old White Bear declared an asset of community value. Said one resident: “You rip the heart out of that, and we’re either all going to wander the streets like zombies or stay indoors and not see each other ever again.”
If a community has registered its pub as an "asset of community value" and it is then offered for sale, the community has the right to “pause” the sale of the endangered pub, shop, library or football ground, in order to prepare a formal bid to buy it. The government has even prepared a guide to Understanding the Community Right to Bid, and it offers an advice service for studying the feasibility of a community purchase.
I suspect that even with this government support, it’s still quite difficult for communities to actually buy and maintain endangered pubs. But how terrific that there is such a legal right to assert long-term community interests.
Of course, the precedent invites expansion: If the government can shower tax breaks and subsidies on investors, why not give significant financial support to commoners trying to buy “assets of community value”? Why should commerce get all the subsidies?
And if localism is truly valued, why not fortify local communities to protect themselves against absentee investors who care little about the long-term well-being of the community or local ecosystems?
Why not show the same respect to commoners in India or Kenya or Indonesia whose equivalent of the local pub is under siege by multinational investors? Native peoples who are deprived of their "assets of community value" are just as likely to “wander the street like zombies” if those assets are suddenly bought, fenced off or destroyed.
Still, let us be grateful for this legal and political precedent. It’s something to build upon: full recognition and support for owning the things that really matter to a local community.