The Open Doors scheme launched earlier this year in five locations across the country, offering local groups spaces in empty retail units free of charge to test business ideas, make products and bring positive social change to their high street.
Backed by charity the Meanwhile Foundation and the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), early signs are the project is making a real difference, as NewStart found out when we visited one of the pilot locations at Fenton in Stoke-on-Trent.
Nobody is quite sure what 282 City Road used to be.
I’ve asked local residents, journalists and the local MP, Jack Brereton, who have all gathered here to celebrate its rebirth as an Open Doors community hub.
Even the landlord, whose industrialist great grandfather William Meath Baker helped to build the famous potteries in Fenton, hesitates to recall exactly which tenants have occupied the space in its recent history.
Now after being chosen for the year-long pilot, the space is thriving and is being used groups dedicated to adult learning support, helping unemployed young people into the creative arts and community organising, giving them all a shop window for important work that often goes on below the radar.
Decline as a given
Justin Meath Baker is the landlord. He also owns the units to the left and right and has seen everything on the street come and go — from mini-markets and junk shops to computer repair stores and greengrocers.
He hopes that one of the organisations using the space could use it as a springboard to get to the next level and perhaps receive funding so they could move in full-time.
The row of shops on this section of City Road is now almost exclusively vacant and Baker knows the longer they stay empty the harder it will be for him to find paying tenants, or as he puts it: “The more broken teeth you’ve got, the uglier your mouth is”.’
So as a major stakeholder in the area, he knew that something radical had to happen if it is to stand a chance of reversing the decline.
But first, he says there is a ‘massive amount of inertia’ in the community that needs to be overcome, as for generations, many in Stoke-on-Trent have seen decline as a given.
‘What you can’t underestimate is the negativity of communities that have suffered since the 50s,’ he says.
‘Since the Second World War, the Potteries have been on the decline, so you have two generations of people who have only ever seen things getting worse.
‘They can’t imagine things could get better – because why would they?’
Baker points outside to what was the old Working Men’s Institute which was built by his family in the 19th century. It’s now a bookmakers, as is the old post office and bank.
Landlords have been accused of having an unrealistic expectation of how much their property is worth and don’t realise the property market has changed – but Baker says this is a simplistic viewing of the retail crisis.
‘It’s easy to say – “evil landlord”.’
‘But it’s mad to assume that buildings are being held back.’
‘Empty buildings cost money through business rates, so the idea that landlords are holding out for unrealistic rent is just bullshit. It’s not the case.’
Baker is also involved in one of Fenton’s big success stories after taking control of the derelict Town Hall a few years ago. It’s now thriving with over twenty local start-ups and businesses using it every day.
In 1888, his great grandfather built the Town Hall and gifted it to the people of Fenton, before it ended up as a court and in the hands of the Ministry of Justice.
In 2015 Baker managed to buy the building back, alongside help from the local community, and he says landlords must now understand that there is a partnership of interest between them and the community they have a stake in.
‘You’ve got to really know the tenants – what their business needs – and how it can grow and thrive.’
‘Then they might need a bigger office or can pay more rent – so it’s in everyone’s interests for them to succeed.’
Penny Vincent and Lynne Ball are part of the 1,000 Lives Community Champions Network. They’re using the building one day a week to train local residents in community organising so people can go out into Fenton and tackle social justice issues in the area.
In a familiar story, Penny says Stoke has been savaged by austerity, with children’s centres closing, council-run buildings closed and sold-off, and public transport subsidies slashed. It’s all increased social isolation and people’s sense of loneliness.
Coupled with the boarded-up shops and pubs, they say Fenton can feel like a pretty lonely place at times.
‘It makes people feel the place isn’t cared for, and therefore, you’re not cared for,’ says Penny.
But now, Open Doors gives the group a visible base in the community, so local residents can learn about the good things that are going on know and feel part of something bigger.
‘It’s really exciting to see the difference you can make when you have that focus,’ she says.
‘We want to do lots of outreach work to and build the community. It’s all about making it as sustainable as possible – and helping people so they feel like they can keep going, even when it’s really difficult.’
Lynne adds: ‘It’s about building resilience, so when times are hard, there are people you can call on within a trusted network.’
‘This visible attractive space sends a positive message that there are things happening – and there are people based here who are committed to supporting the community.’
Potential in spaces
Holly Norcop runs an annual film festival in Stoke which last year had over 300 international submissions. She also uses different derelict places in Stoke-on-Trent to run ‘immersive’ film events and is now using the Open Doors space at 282 City Road as a base for local freelancers to work and network.
She says the space gives her group, Movie Mavericks, more credibility.
‘It’s is such a lovely environment for us to work together and we’re not stepping on anybody’s toes,’ she says.
Youth unemployment in Stoke is high and there is also a large number of disused spaces — which Holly says can offer young people a unique opportunity to find a new path in life as ‘creativity doesn’t need qualifications.’
She also says art can help disillusioned young people look at Stoke-on-Trent in a different way.
‘Art gives young people that never knew the industry in Stoke the chance to see the potential in the spaces that are here,’ she says.
‘It can show that there are places here with potential. Not just something that we’ve lost or to mourn for. That’s what creativity does.’
‘It makes people feel more hopeful.’