The CAT’s Meow! The Success of Community Asset Transfer at Court House Bangor
Community Asset Transfer (CAT) has been successfully utilised across the UK, yet Northern Ireland has seen only one major success story so far – the Open House Festival's ownership of the Bangor Court House, which saw the transformation of a disused courthouse into a thriving community arts venue. Its triumph prompts an important question – if this worked so well in Bangor, why aren't more Northern Irish communities trying out asset transfers to revive cherished local buildings?
We’ve all been there. Taken a stroll down the street and seen a beautiful building laying in ruins and thought, “What a shame.” And that is usually where it ends.
In 2022, 762 historic buildings (around 8% of Northern Ireland’s listed buildings) were placed on the Heritage at Risk in Northern Ireland register. This was an increase of 142 buildings – or almost 20% - from 2020/2021. We see evidence of these abandoned buildings across Northern Ireland: from the Crumlin Road Court House, Belfast to the Ballymagorry Railway Station in Co. Tyrone. These buildings are often in disarray or can even prove hazardous to visit. What should be done with them? Should they just be torn down or left to rot? Both options are exceedingly bleak and unappealing. But, perhaps, there is a third solution: one with a much brighter outcome. This is where Community Asset Transfer comes in.
Community Asset Transfer (CAT) is a UK policy that involves transferring control of land or buildings from public bodies to community groups, like non-profits or co-ops. It is implemented in Northern Ireland by the Development Trust NI. This is a regional network that promotes public ownership of assets for community benefit. CAT can apply to a diverse range of community assets which include parks, libraries, and museums. The benefits of CAT are impressive. They can protect key local services and facilities; generate income for local reinvestment; provide jobs, training, and business opportunities. They can also reverse economic decline and attract investment to an area.
While there have been many success stories of CAT across the UK - such as Old School in Westhill, Aberdeen, Woodlands Community Sports Hall, Falkirk and Conduit Head, Shrewsbury - there is currently only one in Northern Ireland. That is the Court House in Bangor, which was obtained by Open House Festival (OHF) in 2020. I met with the Festival’s Development Director, Alison Gordon, to discuss how the festival achieved the transfer and to look at the many benefits of having a venue in the local community.
The Case Study of Court House, Bangor.
Open House Festival began life in Belfast back in 1999, before moving to Bangor fourteen years later. The festival’s organisers - and Bangor natives - Alison Gordon and Kieran Gilmore, decided to move the festival to the seaside town for many reasons. These included the regeneration of the town. (You can read more about the move here.)
As part of the relocation, OHF wanted to acquire a venue for the festival in the town. That way, they would have a base, where they could host events across the year outside of the festival. It would also help integrate them as an establishment in Bangor. Obtaining a building would prove arduous and time-consuming but, in many ways, it was a two-step process for OHF. The first step involved finding a suitable venue and finding out if it was feasible to acquire it through CAT. The second step was exploring what they could do with the building.
In terms of choosing a venue, it proved lucky that the festival would find a home at the Court House. The same year that the OHF moved back to Bangor, the Court House building was decommissioned by the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service. Originally built in 1865, the Court House was built in the Italianate Classical style: a style of architecture influenced by both 16th century Italian architecture with picturesque elements from the Tuscan countryside. It first served as the Bangor branch of Belfast Banking Company and became something of a landmark in the town. In 1952, the building was converted into a Court of Petty Sessions which was decommissioned in 2013. This beautiful Victorian building was at risk of being left to fall into ruin. It might even have become a symbol of the urban decline of Bangor. However, OHF saw an opportunity to change this fate.
How did OHF acquire the Court House?
Prior to OHF’s involvement, it was the DTNI, along with Bangor Shared Space, a group of concerned local residents, who realised the potential of the Court House as a possible community venue. Ultimately, BSS handed the baton to Open House, but they still played a pivotal role in identifying the building as a prospective candidate for Community Asset Transfer. However, it would be OHF who would finally prove the right fit for such a process.
What made the OHF the right choice for undergoing this project?
- Established History and Loyal Audience
First, the festival had a well-established and successful history. Over the years, the festival has consistently recorded its box office data, and this established that it had a loyal audience in Bangor (70%), with the additional 30% based outside of this. Having a base in Bangor clearly made sense, but this data also showed that they could bring in sizeable numbers from outside the town.
2. Feasibility Studies and Cost Assessments
During the development stage of the CAT process, OHF used funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Architectural Heritage Fund to do a feasibility study on the costs of refurbishing the Court House. They hired an architect to help with this process. This established just how much would be involved and enabled them to assess the work that would be required – and set a timeline for the process.
3. Developing a business plan
Open House developed an in-depth business case that showed how they would run a successful and sustainable business in the Court House once it was redeveloped. This was a lengthy document that evidenced their track record and suitability to take on the project, with draft plans for the refurbishment, and detailed projections about the activities they would deliver and the financial model they would put in place.
4. Demonstrating Value and Benefits
A crucial component of the process for both the CAT and fundraising efforts was showing the economic and social advantages that would come from completing the project. OHF also hired a consultancy to carry out a Social Return on Investment (SROI) exercise by looking over the company’s data. The purpose of this was to demonstrate how every pound invested in the building project would benefit the local community.
5. Building Strong Relationships and Support
From the beginning of the project, OHF maintained strong relationships with various groups and individuals who could help them through the process. These included DTNI, local councillors, funders (including the National Lottery Hertiage Fund and the The Architectural Heritage Fund), and the local community. The Department of Communities also helped with their business case. The Ards and North Down Council proved a valuable ally, and they allowed OHF to host meetings at their offices. When it came to selecting board members, OHF chose people who could provide practical advice and support in specialist areas. They also called upon people with a personal connection to Bangor. They had for example, a board member who was an accountant who specialised in tax and revenue issues. By building strong relationships with the people of Bangor, these people in turn became advocates and a part of the campaign.
6. Learning and Adapting Along the Way
As the first organisation to take on the CAT process in Northern Ireland, Alison explained how they learned as they went. To quote the iconic Dory – from Disney’s animated movie, the motto was “Just Keep Swimming.” However, there were also a lot of clever moves made by the festival. Between OHF taking ownership of the building in December 2020 and the restoration work starting in August 2021, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, OHF carried out a period of ‘meanwhile use’ in the building. This meant they could use the vacant space for interim purposes before it was fully reactivated for commercial use. During this time, dozens of artists used the space to rehearse, make videos and podcasts, and Alison organised hundreds of tours of the building for the local community. She also invited people of interest such as politicians, architects, surveyors to the building. This was a two-way exchange, and allowed access to a wealth of information from the people of Bangor on what the space should be used for and what changes should be implemented. While the OHF would have final say on all decisions, the insight from their supporters would prove invaluable.
7. Maintaining Integrity and Local Connections
Another smart move by OHF was to maintain the integrity and story of the building itself. Alison and her team made sure to keep many of the original features of the building, such as its tile floors, crowd mouldings and fireplaces. They also brought in elements from other local buildings that were being demolished. For instance, the two bars and the downstairs fireplace were salvaged from the Royal Hotel and the Windsor Hotel just a couple of doors along from the Court House. Many local people also donated pieces of art and objects of local interest to hang on the walls: helping to establish that the Court House is for the people of Bangor to access and enjoy.
In 2020, Bangor Courthouse opened as an arts venue and cultural hub. OHF achieved their mission of bringing new life to what was already an iconic heritage building. The venue now attracts visitors from across Northern Ireland, benefiting local businesses. It provides a dedicated arts facility for the region. OHF continues to use the space to showcase local artists and bring community members together through the arts. As the third largest city in NI, it is critical to have a space dedicated to the arts outside of Belfast and Derry. OHF now see people travelling from those two cities coming to specific Bangor events. This not only benefits the arts sector but also the local economy. People go out to restaurants and bars in the local area and make a night of it in Bangor. The Court House has also become a platform for local artists to present their work to a wider audience.
What is the advice that OHF have for others interested in obtaining a building through CAT?
- Utilise data to demonstrate community impact.
- Know your business and how it can help your local community.
- Build a strong network and don't be afraid to ask for help.
If you’re interested to learn more about the CAT process, or discuss your own audience, please feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com and I can put you in touch with the right person on our team to help.