Spitfire Services is a resident-led charity at the heart of the sprawling Castle Vale estate in Birmingham.
On chief executive Ray Goodwin’s wall is a framed picture of Cuban revolution leader, Che Guevara. He says Guevara has been a ‘bit of a hero’ in Castle Vale’s own community revolution, which saw them take control of the estate library and swimming pool from Birmingham City Council.
‘Communities need to stand up and be counted,’ says Goodwin.
‘Because if they don’t and there are going to be cuts and cuts, where does the line stop unless you say – enough.
‘It takes a community to say – it’s my swimming pool, it’s my library and these are services that matter to me.’
When local MP Robin Corbett visited Castle Vale in the late 1980s, he found a chronically underfunded estate, calling it a ‘civic pigsty.’
A Housing Action Trust (HAT) was formed in the early 1990s followed by Castle Vale Community Housing in 1997 to manage the new homes developed by the HAT’s housing association partners.
It led to the estate’s metamorphosis and it became a shining example of successful council estate regeneration.
Between 1992 and 2005 life expectancy in Castle Vale rose by an average of more than seven years which was credited to improved housing and a strategy for health improvements tailored to the problems prevalent on the estate.
Then austerity hit and it looked like much of the good work in Castle Value might come undone.
Since 2010, 478 public libraries and 438 public swimming pools have closed across the UK and the odds of Castle Vale keeping theirs were not good.
However, Spitfire Services worked with the community to take ownership of the estate library in 2014 and the swimming pool in 2015 through asset transfers, and Goodwin still questions how they managed to pull it off.
‘If anyone ever says they have a burning desire to do what we’ve done, then they seriously need some sort of help,’ he says.
‘It’s not for the sensible or the sane, and it’s not for the faint-hearted.’
‘We did it because people matter the most.’
Goodwin decided that they would need their own enterprise activities to raise the funds required to protect some of the vital services on the estate such as their recently launched debt service, as well as freeing up the capital to ultimately run the library and pool. It was an approach that raised eyebrows within his sector.
‘People looked at me like I was mad,’ he says.
‘We could have found some trusts and grants instead. You can do that and have an easier life, but that’s very disrespectful to the community and it’s not what you should be doing if you’re running a charity.’
Spitfire set up Upcycle Birmingham which now sells beds, fridges and other vital household goods and appliances. It brings in around £8000 in a month in cash which now helps underpin all their other work within the community.
Reading in the dark
Birmingham City Council then approached Goodwin to see if Spitfire would be interested in taking the library on, which stands next to their offices on the estate.
With potential job cuts on the horizon, not everyone was enamoured with them taking control.
‘I had death threats,’ says Goodwin.
‘I had people via social media call me all manner of things. Calling me Judas or saying how dare you take somebody’s job.
‘People from unions were calling me a bad man for making people unemployed. That was a surprise. It was really bad at one point.’
‘However, the community was the constant inspiration for making it happen,’ he says.
When Spitfire took over the running of the library, the trade union highlighted how jobs were being lost due to the involvement of volunteers, and questioned their ability to run the library without paid library staff.
Goodwin says all the staff have now been transferred to other libraries in the city.
‘We saved the library and if we didn’t step in the service would have been lost.’
The library received £50,000 of funding from the city council for each of Spitfire’s first two years in control, but it now relies on direct trading and retail, paid for services, and donations from charities, trusts and or foundations as alternative income sources such as the community cinema and theatre.
‘From my point of view, why would you take on a library and use enterprise activity to keep it running unless you felt that passionate about communities and people,’ says Goodwin.
‘It’s not profit making. We underpin it from all our other activities and that’s really important. It’s about the impact we make. For me, that’s the reason we did it.
Goodwin stresses the importance of a library for social mobility and removing the barriers that are faced for those growing up in Castle Vale, and estates like them.
‘The greatest institutions historically have been libraries. The greatest historical people are all interlinked by libraries. They are mythical places.’
Sink or swim
After the success of the library, the city council approached Spitfire again to see if they’d be interested in taking over the swimming pool, which was losing £250,000 a year.
‘I said no,’ remembers Goodwin.
‘They said “please,” I said no.
‘They said “Go on, you know you want to,” and I said no I don’t, I’m not running it!’
The debt service and library were operational in part due to their enterprises such as Upcycle Birmingham but Goodwin knew a swimming pool would be a whole different story and it would need to be financially sustainable on its own merits if it was to be a success.
It was sink or swim.
‘My view was it could take the organisation out if it went wrong. I was just getting to grips with the library and a whole host of things about the pool made me nervous.
‘We heard there was the deficit and from the get-go, there wouldn’t be any grants.’
It had looked like a different party would take control of the pool but the deal fell through at the last minute which lead to a change of heart from Goodwin.
‘If you stop health and wellbeing services there’s a correlation to obesity and breakdown of family units. Why else put yourself through the pain of running an enterprise, which is about people paying money, to keep a business going?
‘Somebody had to do it and I believe that people matter the most. They are singularly the most important thing in all of this. We do it because it changes people’s lives,’ he adds.
On 5th Jan 2015, they signed the contract for the pool.
‘Birmingham City Council basically handed us the keys and walked away. All the support we were promised never happened.’
There were many shocks and surprises, remembers Goodwin. They had to go to Argos to buy a new till so they could take cash from people. The doors didn’t lock properly, the CCTV didn’t work and the roof was leaking.
‘They’d lost the keys to the safe and said to us, if there’s any money can we have it back please?’
‘Nobody tells you these things. In the first year, we rode our luck completely to get us through it,’
‘We worked really hard and we pulled favours in.’
NewStart was given a tour of the pool which was alive with the hustle and bustle of schoolchildren learning to swim.
The early days were a baptism of fire, remembers Linda Clinton, a volunteer who helps runs the pool and who was a Labour councillor in the area until the 2018 elections.
‘We were blind and nobody knew anything,’ she says.
Linda says over a thousand children a week use the pool, catering to children of all ages including those with disabilities.
To save money they had to let go the previous swimming teachers and retrain local Castle Vale residents, many of whom learnt to swim themselves in the pool.
‘We can’t pay our teachers what the going rate is for a fully qualified teacher but they stick with us. They’ve grown up here and are brilliant teachers. ‘
Alan Crawford of Compass Support, a charity who delivers a range of services for those on Castle Vale, explains that residents’ connection to their pool has increased since the community took it over.
‘Brand loyalty has changed,’ he says.
‘There’s much more of a sense that this is their pool. Once they might have gone off-site or to a more modern facility, but now there’s a thinking you’ve got to use it or lose it.’
Everyone involved is proud to say the pool is now in the black now trades at a £3000 surplus, just three years after it was running at a gigantic loss.
‘To me that’s amazing,’ says Goodwin.
‘We did it through blood, sweat and tears and a lot of people giving a lot of time and a lot of frustration. People gave everything to keep it going. It was sheer willpower. We turned something that was on paper financially inviable to something that’s viable.’
So you say you want a revolution
Goodwin remembers a speech he made a few years ago to other people within his sector, where he talked of the need for a community revolution and people running things for themselves.
‘All these people clapped,’ he says.
‘Then the person who chaired it came up after and said that was really good, but would you mind not talking about revolutions again as you might upset a few people,’ laughs Goodwin.
‘The reason Che Guevara became a revolutionary was he saw the gross inequalities in society,’ he adds.
‘That made him believe that things could be different,
‘He said “Let the world change you and you can change the world”, and that rings true here.’