The magic money tree was a favourite metaphor of Theresa May. Cash doesn’t fall magically into our laps with every stiff breeze, we were often reminded. Like George Osbourne’s comparison of government and household budgets, it has been criticised a lot by those who believe greater government investment can be prudent and responsible. But if Liz Truss’s brief premiership has taught us anything, it’s that careful spending matters more than some thought. As we move closer to a likely recession, public spending windfalls will be few and far between—regardless of who is in power. This is why what we do with the Dormant Assets funding matters enormously.
Dormant Assets are private bank accounts and other assets which have not been touched for many years. After best efforts to track down the owner have failed, the money is put to good use via the National Lottery Community Fund. So far over £800m has gone to causes around the country, mostly through Big Society Capital, but also through the Youth Futures Foundation, Fair4All Finance and Access Social Investment.
An extra £880m was recently added to the scheme, with a public consultation on what to spend it on. The government gave four options on where the money should go and asked respondents to rank in order of preference: youth, financial inclusion, social investment, and a community wealth fund. We think this approach misses vital questions which are key to the Fund’s success.
How and where the money is spent is just as important as the general topic that the Dormant Assets focuses on. Most importantly, all funding needs to be targeted towards deprivation to prevent regional inequalities worsening due to the cost-of-living crisis. This should include indicators of social infrastructure deprivation, such as the number of registered charities per capita in an area.
The Community Wealth Fund is an important initiative that deserves support, but its impact will hinge entirely on the detail of how it is delivered. The Community Wealth Fund is a proposal for a 10-15 year, community-led fund distributed at a neighbourhood level to meet residents’ aspirations. It must be informed by data on local social needs. The decision-makers must be representative of the community and recruited through a rigorous sampled process similar to what is used for a citizens’ assembly (including payment if necessary to incentivise marginalised groups). It should work alongside local government and other institutions like the NHS and charities. We also need robust monitoring and evaluation to check the money achieves what was intended—the National Audit Office demonstrated earlier this year how little data we have on what works at a local level. We should encourage the initiative to become self-sustaining by investing in civil society and community institutions to ensure that the Fund has a long-term legacy for the community.
Finally, whatever issue the Dormant Assets funding is spent on, it should be additional to and build on vital support to people during the cost-of-living crisis. Dormant Assets Funding must not be a substitute for our social welfare system.
Dormant Assets give us a chance to look beyond immediate crisis response and think long-term about what our communities need to thrive. We must not squander this unique opportunity to fund civil society in the places that need it most and help to pin together our social fabric.