I’ve spent the last ten years as a co-operative property developer. Spot the building, see its potential social use (sometimes see the social need and spot the building), form the co-op, build the support, do a share issue, raise the rest of the finance, develop the building and the business with the members, then move on after three or four years, leaving the Community Benefit Society in control.
It’s a twist on the community asset development that has been championed by the Development Trust Association and Locality for many years. The difference is that rather than waiting for a community demand to emerge, a social developer or group plunges into the property market after spotting a good opportunity.
‘It may be a slow death, but the traditional
office block and its retail equivalent is on the way out’
Buildings are platforms to do stuff in. A well-run community building, uncommitted to brand, business models or national hierarchies, can bundle everything together – social, business, education – in an imaginative and networked organisation. A business that can meet our multiple needs in an age of blurring divisions between work and play is swimming with the tide. It may be a slow death, but the traditional office block and its retail equivalent is on the way out.
So these community properties have to be one of the contributions to improving our towns and cities. More of it needs to happen and, as community property developers, we need to be challenging the traditional model with its crushingly boring vision of ‘mixed use’ corporate fare.
There are huge barriers in the way with the movement in property prices and decimation of local authority capital programmes and land ownership, but some things have got better. The social finance market (loans, community shares etc) is better resourced and tuned in to such developments, and local authorities are much keener to work with social enterprises, recognising they cannot do it themselves.
One thing haunts me though. These hives of activity have to be financially viable. Grab as much grant as you can for start up investment, but don’t expect revenue subsidy. That means you look for profitable activity, which means paying close attention to those that have money. If you’re fully immersed in the free market, how then do you help out the people who suffer from it?
The developments I’ve been associated with have been great in regeneration and economic terms and have brought new social groups together but, in my gloomier moments, they can seem like middle class playpens.
There’s no easy answers. My approach would be to create a financially viable structure, which may well mean focusing on the cappuccino classes, but then develop activities that keep throwing out ladders for people to climb on board – apprenticeships, free training days, grant-funded projects, links with schools and the voluntary sector etc.
But judge a person by what they do, not what they say. How often do those priorities get pushed to the back during the struggle to keep a business financially afloat? I dream of one day attending a board meeting to discuss how we could most usefully use our profits. Until that day I need to learn how to make my economy more social.
Chris Hill develops creative business spaces for community benefit. He currently works at FutureLabs Leeds and has previously helped set up Unity Works in Wakefield and Roco in Sheffield.