Portland Works: Community Shares in action

portico_portlandworksPortland Works, a workspace and building of industrial heritage in Sheffield, was due to be redeveloped as flats. Steve Connelly reports on how issuing community shares to buy the building is helping to forge a new kind of local economy.

In February this year a community group bought a historic cutlery factory in Sheffield, after three years of campaigning and fundraising.  The group, Portland Works Little Sheffield Ltd, is a democratic, cooperative social enterprise with over five hundred members who have invested in the project.  As well as owning a magnificent Grade II* listed building, we are now also the landlord for two dozen small businesses – manufacturers, artists and bands who are based in Portland Works.

Built in 1870, Portland Works has a unique place in Sheffield’s – and the world’s – industrial heritage.  In 1914 it was the first place in the world where stainless steel cutlery was made: as the First World War was starting, Harry Brearley brought his newly invented ‘rustless steel’ to the Works. It was renamed ‘stainless steel’, and the rest is history.  In the 1970s, due in part to the decline of manufacturing in the city, and the flexibility of this type of accommodation, the use of the Works diversified and it became home to artists, musicians and artisan craftsman.

Saving the Works from a market-driven future
The current project started with a planning application. After nearly 140 years as a place of manufacturing and creativity, a application was made in 2009 by the then owner to convert the building into flats.  This redevelopment would have been the end for many businesses based there, who could not afford to relocate machinery, or find other suitable affordable accommodation within the city. Some of the tenants went to the local community forum and a campaign was born to oppose the planning application. People quickly realised that to secure the future of the building and the businesses we had to develop an alternative to this market-driven future, and the idea of setting up a social enterprise to buy and manage the Works was born.

The big question was how to do this. With the help of Sheffield University and many others we researched different models of development and at a big ‘community workshop’ we decided to set up a community benefit society and raise money through a share issue.  The crucial aspects of this model were the ability to create an asset lock on the building, and the ability to issue shares, on a one-member one-vote basis. We understood that the strength of the organisation had been the contributions of a diverse number of people, each with particular skills they could bring to our future project development; our shareholders could contribute both financially and in terms of time. The motivation of many of the active campaigners was to develop a more just and equitable future, and enable the makers at Portland Works to take control of their own assets.

We defeated the planning application through a combination of petitions, press coverage and expert planning advice, wrote a business plan, and then set about trying to raise half a million pounds.  Three years on we had negotiated that price down and bought the building, having raised a quarter of a million pounds through the share issue, tens of thousands more in short term loans from supporters, and received a loan from the Architectural Heritage Fund.

PW-37Creating a different kind of economy
As owners of a space our intention is to continue to provide low cost workshop and studio space, in order to contribute to the economy and sense of community in this inner city area. As well as restoring the building, we will open spaces for new small businesses, and have longer term plans to develop training opportunities and apprenticeships, as well as using the Works as a site for cultural events.  For us the Works is more than just the building and its businesses: it’s also about a ‘different’ kind of economy, based on cooperative principles and the sharing of ideas and resources.

It wasn’t easy to get to this point. We are all volunteers, none of us had done anything like it before, and raising a large sum of money in a recession seemed daunting – as did working out how to set up an industrial and provident society.

So we had to learn and continue to do so. We tapped into lots of expertise (from the co-operative movement, regeneration organisations, and many individuals with experience and skills) and then tried it out for ourselves. It took seemingly endless numbers of meetings, but we stayed together – people remain enthused about the goal, and somehow the very open, relaxed approach to decision making keeps people engaged. Finding investors was challenging but we realised quickly how much people cared about Sheffield’s industrial heritage and understand the importance of this kind of open and affordable space within a city – not just the buildings but the craftsmanship and creativity that are still contained here. So we held open days at the Works, we developed good relationships with the local press, and built up a strong base of supporters.  One barrier was not being taken seriously by the building’s owner: reasonably enough he initially didn’t think a bunch of volunteers could be serious as purchasers. As the money came in and we kept on negotiating he changed his mind!  Now we face a new challenge: of working out how to run a complicated organisation rather than a single-minded fundraising campaign. This is work in progress.

Using the community shares approach was crucial.  There seemed to be limited grant funding to buy a building. Simply asking for donations didn’t seem feasible, whereas giving people a stake in the building through share ownership seemed more likely to work. It also meant we could sustain the democratic ethos we started out with. There was something very attractive about the Works ending up with hundreds of investors, including tenants, all of whom are equal no matter how large or small their investment.  The approach has its drawbacks: we opted to offer a small return to our shareholders and so ruled out charitable status. This has excluded some possible grant funding sources now that we need money to work on the building.

Community support remains absolutely central to our success in the new phase of the project. We have a huge number of people willing to volunteer their skills and time to help us with the complexity of our task.  ‘Opportunities’ range from stewarding at open days, giving professional advice on health and safety to cleaning out the drains, but we see these as ways to learn and grow together!  This community of supporters – mostly in Sheffield but some scattered far more widely – are also a vital resource in publicising what we do, and so creating fertile ground for future fundraising. We are now in the middle of a second round of fundraising, aiming to raise £100,000 through a mixture of a share issue and short term bonds to enable us to carry out essential repairs and open up new areas for workshops and studios.


  • USE THE PRESS – make yourself as widely known as possible.  Local newspapers, bloggers and radio stations want stories, so give them some.


    John Craven with cutlery makers at the Works

  • LEARN FROM WHAT OTHERS HAVE DONE – do lots of research on what has been done locally and elsewhere in similar projects, but don’t be afraid to develop your own approach from this
  • BE PREPARED TO BE ‘IN FOR THE LONG HAUL’: fundraising is slow, and all the legal aspects seemed to go on forever
  • MAKE THE PROJECT FUN: run events and go out for meals  after meetings; these are also great opportunities to get to know one another and what matters
  • ENTHUSE AS MANY PEOPLE AS YOU CAN – don’t rely on a tiny core of dedicated people
  • If you need to negotiate a price GET SOME TOUGH GUYS/GIRLS IN to help you
  • TRY TO ATTRACT SMALL INVESTORS AS WELL AS BIG – almost three quarters of our shareholders invested £200 or less; the smaller ‘money’ investors are often more likely to be bigger investors of time
  • FIND MULTIPLE REASONS FOR PEOPLE TO BE INTERESTED in the project in order to develop resilience
  • This article was co-authored by Steve Connelly, Nikky Wilson and Julia Udall, who are all directors of Portland Works Little Sheffield Ltd.

Derek Morton (Chair), Portland Works Little Sheffield Ltd.


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