Precious Buildings at Risk through Irresponsible Ownership

In this country we would never let someone drive a car that was uninsured or dangerous. That’s why we have the MOT system and DVLA to keep records of car ownership.  Yet we allow hundreds of owners to keep buildings and land irresponsibly, the Land Registry role is limited and non-regulatory, and the only fallback mechanism (Compulsory Purchase) is torturous, expensive and fraught with risk.

It’s time to do something about it. First we need to know more about the scale of the problem. If you know about a building that matters to the local community but is disused or derelict please complete the questionnaire and help to build the evidence.

The impact of buildings in limbo is particularly acute given the financial climate and the need to squeeze the contribution from every available resource. While Empty Property Rates provide some incentive to owners to secure new uses, they seem to have little effect on the most irresponsible owners, perhaps because they pay no rates at all on a ‘derelict’ building. Currently a CPO authority may insist on nil compensation if it can be proved that the owner is deliberately mistreating the building in order to profit from development on the site. But this does not deal with the majority of irresponsible ownership which is not driven by development pressure but rather by market and regulatory failure. Meanwhile some sites stay problematic for decades due to the rule that, once work has started, a planning permission lasts forever. Most owners are responsible but are dragged down by the tiny but troublesome group of delinquent owners.

Examples

  • Hastings Pier – owned by Ravenclaw, a company registered in Panama to avoid English company law, abandoned in 2006, burdened by a £1.8m mortgage, uninsured and subject to dangerous dilapidation and eventually arson. Saved at last by local people’s dogged persistence over seven years against all the odds.
  • South Parade Pier, Portsmouth – owned by people with criminal convictions (horse theft and assault) and associated with the Lapland New Forest Christmas funfair scan, who keep the management companies separate from the asset ownership so that the former can go bankrupt as often as they like without losing the asset.
  • Palace Theatre, Plymouth – owned by Manoucehr Bahmanzadeh who was imprisoned for nine years for allowing the ‘overt and blatant’ sale of Class A drugs at the theatre in a controversial case that has kept the building empty and deteriorating for many years
  • Rose & Young site, Caterham – a large historic building in the centre of the high street, empty for 25 years, owned by a man who continues to collect rent on his other local properties. The council feel it is not their responsibility to take action.
  • London Road Fire Station, Manchester – owned by Britannia Hotels  and kept empty for the past 27 years. They recently won a CPO against Manchester City Council on the basis that they will develop it and then promptly said that it was not viable now or in the foreseeable future.
  • Undercliff, St Leonards. Permission was granted in 1966 to build 16 flats and 19 garages. A 1972 landslide put the work on hold and the site into limbo until in 2008 work began again under new owners. A second major landslide led them to abandon the project and the developers have now gone into liquidation. The land is likely to go to auction, still carrying an entirely unsuitable 50 year old planning permission.
  • The Observer Building, Hastings – 41,000 square feet in the heart of the town centre, empty since 1985 while a series of speculative owners achieved planning permissions to ratchet up the price without ever starting redevelopment or undertaking essential safety works.

In all these cases there is strong local community interest and an existing or emerging community trust willing to take on the asset. Many more examples are emerging all the time, including some that could be seen as ‘borderline delinquent’ where just the threat of action would be likely to change the behaviour of owners.

Local authorities often say that the powers exist but they don’t have the resources to make use of them and they are wary of the risk of legal challenge or of ending up owning the building themselves.  This is immensely frustrating to local people trying to save buildings and sites from the grip of delinquent owners. It takes huge campaigning effort to convince local authorities to take the risk even of approval in principle to make a compulsory purchase order, and then many years to see an outcome. Although increasingly acute due to budget pressures, this is not a new problem. The answer is not necessarily more resources, but simplified powers and strong encouragement.

It’s time to tackle delinquent owners of precious buildings.

Locality, Jericho Road Solutions and other partners are working together to say “enough is enough”.

We want to extend the evidence base, support communities and local authorities who are fighting delinquent ownership , and petition government to bring in more effective policy solutions.

Please click here to add your precious building to the list and contribute your views about the problem and what should be done  about it.

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Posted in Jericho Road Solutions, Locality, Policy, Thinking | 1 Comment

The People’s Piers

I was taken aback by the level of interest in the Bank Holiday launch of my Coops UK Fresh Ideas pamphlet ‘The People’s Piers’. Given the coverage – Guardian, Times, Mirror, Daily Mail, BBC News, ITN, etc – I should have put more care into clarifying the argument and also made sure I was in the country to explain it better.

The pamphlet tells the story of Hastings Pier – which opened 141 years earlier, on Britain’s first ever Bank Holiday in 1872 – and of the long community campaign leading at last to its transfer from the shadowy Panamanian-registered Ravenclaw, via Hastings Borough Council, to the dedicated Hastings Pier Charity.

I argue that community ownership can be a solution for other piers. However, I am certainly not suggesting that all piers should be forcibly transferred. Each of the 58 surviving British piers has its own unique story and situation. As Gavin Henderson, president of National Piers Society (NPS), said on Radio 4: there are a small number at the top in good ownership and thriving; there are some horror stories at the bottom that desperately need solutions; and there are the majority in the middle being run by public or private owners who try as best they can. My argument is that all those in desperate need should consider community ownership as an option, and that the line between getting by and neglect is a thin one, easily rubbed out by fire, storm, or a string of bad luck.

I do not believe the standard property market works well for these majestic but immensely challenging structures. Piers spend too much time in the hands of people and organisations who have neither the will nor the resources to make them work. There’s always another speculative optimist round the corner – many have the best of intentions, though there are also some gangsters who just get the cash rolling off the deck and are ready to walk away when the substructure begins to buckle. Sadly, public authorities still tend to see ‘the private sector’ as a risk-free answer and ‘the community’ as trouble. My involvement in Hastings Pier has always aimed to challenge that – not just to save the pier but to show that community solutions are viable and when it comes to the really difficult but important buildings, they may be the only option.

Most of all I want to encourage local people to stand up to irresponsible ownership that risks the buildings they care about, and to stop accepting the idea that there is nothing we can do. The majority of property owners are responsible but there are many shades of delinquency – from abandonment to illegal uses, from the dangerous aloofness of the pension funds to the progressive demolition that starts with ‘taking the roof off for repairs’.

The first time I saw the anti-squatting tactic of concrete down the toilets (22 years ago in a gorgeous but pillaged building at 221 New Cross Road) I felt sick with anger. A couple of years later I watched men with pneumatic drills destroying the scrolled detail on the roof of a riverside warehouse to avoid a heritage listing. Another historic Deptford asset, Lady Florence House on Arklow Road, was transformed by a group of good-squatters into a vibrant party-space with workshops in the day, until the council called in the bailiffs, sold it for £80k (of which £60k had to be returned to central government), the windows were breeze-blocked and it’s been used for storage ever since. It is still beautiful and sad today, while the owner holds out for silly money. My own baptism of fire into community action focused on the lovely Old Town Library – languishing in the early 1990s with Lewisham’s other historic libraries on the Disposals List, arsoned, flooded, bad-squatted and spoiled; then rescued by local people who transformed it with love and sweat into a youth and community centre. Eighteen months later at the planning committee meeting to decide its fate three councillors sat with their backs to the 80-strong audience and their exhibition of photos and memories, and voted 2:1 in favour of demolition. I cried.

Our response then was to set up Magpie Community Planning Resource Library – so that we could be active citizens, better informed, and then maybe we wouldn’t lose so many of these battles. I still believe that knowledge is power, but it’s not enough on its own. Indeed Magpie quickly developed to focus on creative outreach, and my own faith has been increasingly in community organising to build power based on numbers rather than righteousness (though it’s best to have both!).

Community action – hard and slow and unpredictable as it is – is the right answer. But it must be matched and supported by some effort from an enabling state. Councils have a range of powers to deal with derelict buildings but in far too many cases they don’t have the resources and capacity to use them. Is the answer to carve out more resources to pay for the hoop-jumping? Maybe, in a high-public spending era (although sometimes the resource that’s missing is backbone rather than money). Instead I think we should look at the powers themselves. Part of the problem is that they are all legalistic which means information and decisions about them rest with the borough solicitor or outsourced legal firm. The questions are not about what is right or possible but about the risk of legal challenge. Another issue is that legal powers are not finely distinguished – so the same ‘solution’ has to be stretched to fit across utterly different scenarios. And perhaps the biggest problem is that the powers are all held and exercised (or not) by local authorities rather than shared among stakeholders. So local residents and businesses expect the council to deal with these problems and then berate it for failing, when in fact they can only ever be solved through active partnership and bold steps taken together.

Hastings BC has built a well-deserved reputation for grot-busting, is blazing a trail for compulsory purchase of HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) to create family housing, and has its hard-won but well-worth-it experience of the pier CPO. But the 28-year ordeal of the Observer Building continues – passed from one greedy, irresponsible owner to the next and now stuck on a bank balance sheet at a ridiculous price. It will take all our collective efforts against the odds to unlock it from limbo… and we could really do with the threat of compulsory community transfer to oil the wheels.

* * *

To return to the piers pamphlet… the NPS has responded with some valid criticism (NPS_response_to_Co-operatives_UK_report_on_seaside_piers). I should not have said “those [piers] in public ownership tended to be unimaginative and dull”. This was a broad characterisation of a spectrum from safe-and-dull to dynamic-and-vulnerable to make the point that piers need ownership that balances the 100-year horizon with next season’s excitement. Nonetheless I’m not convinced by the NPS statement on public ownership “thus one in every three piers has an assured future”; where councils are struggling to provide social services they will find it harder than ever to justify pier maintenance.

I love the phrase “the NPS considers it impertinent to try to interfere in the running of commercial enterprises”. Piers are scarce, historic resources – an 11 mile stretch visited by more than two-thirds of the population (what else comes near that?). Just like motoring or smoking, property ownership rights must be tempered by social responsibility. If it is impertinent to say so, then we must be impertinent!

NPS are right to stress “the huge task that the newly created Hastings Pier Charity has set itself” and the “considerable commercial acumen” that will be required. They are well aware that the ‘enthusiasts’ who mobilised public opinion and won an unprecedented lottery grant also recruited a superb CEO with highly relevant experience and now oversee a team of specialists in engineering, project management and education. Community ownership does not mean doing it all ourselves.

So… we can agree that piers are all different, all important, all in need of good responsible ownership, dynamic management and community support. And that the extensive media coverage of August Bank Holiday 2013 was a useful trigger for the ongoing debate about their future. The People’s Piers UK (the emerging peer network that was discussed with NPS) will promote community solutions as a valid option and will encourage ‘impertinence’ whenever it is necessary to protect these totemic assets.

 

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Tackling irresponsible ownership

I have been frustrated for many years by the impacts of irresponsible private ownership in the two places I’ve known best (Deptford and Hastings) and the many communities I have been privileged to work with all over the country. There are all kinds of examples, from rogue HMO landlords to dodgy scrapyards in residential areas. But the thing that makes my blood boil is when beautiful historic buildings of huge community interest are left to rot, abandoned by delinquent owners, or passed from one to the next, each making their packet out of speculative planning permissions and none taking the slightest care for the place or its people.

I have been raising the issue with ministers for a couple of years now, originally with Greg Clark and lately with Don Foster. How can we support local government and local communities to solve the really challenging buildings in their area? It was when I saw Caterham High Street with the Rose & Young site left to rot for 25 years in the middle of a Tory high street in the SE of England that I realised it wasn’t just poor coastal towns and the north where this kind of behaviour was allowed to continue, but everywhere.

The reason it’s allowed to continue is twofold – on the one hand we have an obsession with private property rights. As a society we don’t let people drive dangerous cars without insurance and responsible drivers don’t feel bad about being made to do an MOT. It keeps everyone safe, it’s a responsible behaviour. And yet with buildings we hardly have anything to protect places and communities. Section 51, building control, even the heritage listing framework, none of it is fit for purpose when you get these extreme cases. Fit for purpose would be something that sought a realistic solution rather than just identifying the problem, emboldened local authorities and communities rather than terrified them and, most important of all, worked fast when the case was clear. I think this would be a community Compulsory Transfer Order (CTO) which would require a) proof of abandonment and/or irresponsible ownership leading to risks for the building and the local community and b) a bona fide recipient to transfer it to.

The Government has introduced important legislation to allow local communities to take on responsibility for things they care about. Yet even this purposeful approach is in danger of failing to allow communities to deal with the buildings that matter most to them.

The mystery of the recent past

The Community Right to Bid in the Localism Act 2011 introduces the idea of Assets of Community Value. This is where:

1.     Its actual or current use (or there is a time in the recent past when its use) furthers the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community, and

2.    It is realistic to think that there can continue to be (or it is realistic to think that there is a time in the next 5 years when) non-ancillary use of the building or land that would further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community.

Right now I am focusing on two buildings of enormous community value – the Observer in Hastings and Ancoats Dispensary in Manchester. Both have been hugely important to local people and neighbourhoods, delivering services that furthered social wellbeing and community interest over many decades (six for the Observer and eleven for the Dispensary). They are urgently in need of designation as ACV with the protection it provides against more irresponsible private ownership and with the doors it opens to grant aid for communities to bring these assets into viable, sustainable community and commercial use, with the profits from those ventures re-invested in local regeneration. If ever there was a time that this was necessary it is now and for these buildings.

Ancoats and Observer

The issue is the use of the phrase ‘the recent past’ in point 1. As a local historian the recent past means something different from what it means to the Norfolk farmer and landowner quoted in Hansard below. He is trying to protect his fields. I am trying to rekindle the pride in down-beaten communities who feel that nothing they do or say has any impact on the powers that be.

Can a building that has served the community interest for decades but then has become vacant, left to rot by irresponsible owners, kept in a way that has disallowed community use or indeed any use at all, still count as an ACV? Does it make a difference if during those years of neglect, local people have campaigned again and again to try to save and bring these buildings into community ownership and community use? If not, what exactly is the point of asking communities to step up and take responsibility? I am astounded that this question was not raised during the development of the Localism Bill – I feel some personal responsibility but for some reason I assumed somebody else (the heritage sector?) would have been paying attention.

But it is certainly not too late. My practical suggestion – promoted to both central and local government – is that, when considering nominations for ACV, assessors be allowed to discount periods of vacancy from the calculation of ‘the recent past’. At the moment they don’t feel they can. They need a clear reminder from DCLG of Baroness Hanham’s words: “It is the local authority’s job to put these regulations into effect and to be the guiding light” and that for buildings with long histories of serving the community interest the interpretation of the recent past is up to them.

For support on using the Community Rights go to http://www.mycommunityrights.org.uk

If you know a building that local people care about but is stuck in irresponsible ownership please let me know about it: jess@jerichoroad.co.uk. 

Posted in Jericho Road Solutions, Locality, Policy, Self-renovating neighbourhoods, Thinking | 2 Comments

No resting place but a challenge constantly renewed

“The Great Society is not a resting place… a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us towards a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvellous products of our labor.” – Lindon Johnson

Not a ‘finished work’ – no, certainly it isn’t. I have been telling the story of the Battle for Hastings Pier for many years. Since November 2012 when the Heritage Lottery Fund said YES! I have been telling it as a fairy-tale come true, a success against the odds.

Two things occur to me now:

1.    It’s not over. Not even to the extent that we can leave it in the extremely capable hands of our chief executive and his newly-recruited team. Because ‘these things are sent to try us':

a) Funder processes are *not* designed for the benefit of the project (which after all is the point of them) but for their own purposes – risk management, standardisation, funder PR, ‘your problem not ours’ rules that say even if no-one else is willing to quote you still have to get three quotes, delay, delay, delay. And – not Hasting Pier specific – but my experience everywhere: making sure it’s our August ruined by application deadlines not theirs by assessment deadlines; ‘application forms’ in pdf that have to be printed out and completed by hand; no-one that can provide funds in less than 6-8 weeks (note that the Meanwhile Project used to make a decision in one day if urgent, a week if less so!).

b) Tenders never seem to come in as the QS said they would. That’s completely unfair! I bet 90% of them do, but the few that don’t can be very troublesome indeed. So it looks like we won’t be able to start by demolishing the fire-twisted debris that scars the pier but instead the people of Hastings will have to wait until the restoration works reach that far. No matter – we’re adaptable and we’ll put up with a lot as long as something starts soon.

c) Who knew?! To finalise the Compulsory Purchase Order the council’s lawyer has to have evidence that notices have been served on every single delinquent interest that crawls out of the woodwork. Now there’s apparently a Panamanian bank that holds some kind of mortgage interest on our pier. And the Royal Mail is having some difficulty knocking on their door! It will all get resolved in the end, no doubt. But why should communities suffer these indignities because the law forces us all to bow and scrape before the property rights of the dodgiest of landowners and their financial conduits? We need a Compulsory Transfer Order to sit alongside Compulsory Purchase (which was designed to protect Mr Smith’s house from the motorway extension) and be used in situations where landowners are demonstrably irresponsible with important assets.

2.    There’s always another challenge. Funnily enough (and whatever I’ve told you over the last 7 years), the Great Society is not achieved only by the rescue of Hastings Pier… so while I travel the country supporting local residents to sort stuff out where they live, back home we’ve moved straight onto the next local challenge! The Observer Building and its immediate neighbourhood. One of the six really challenging assets in Hastings (Pier, Observer, White Rock Baths, St Mary in the Castle, House of Hastings, Palace Court). Local people will rightly say there are more, but these are the ones in my cross-hairs.

a) The amazing thing about the Observer is where and how it sits in the town. Dug deep into the White Rock cliffside, it is four storeys high where it presents a carved façade onto Cambridge Road, three fading to two as it looks out onto hilly Prospect Place, and a glorious seven where it opens up at the base of the Brassey Steps into an alleyway that could be part of Melbourne’s funky laneways but right now is dominated by pigeons (vermin).

b) This dense, mixed neighbourhood with its failed commercial heart is endlessly fascinating. Every time you turn round there’s another exemplar of something weird, wonderful or just plain wrong. Why is someone charging £1000 a year for people to carry their bins over ‘his’ land down the back of an unadopted alley? Why has multi-national, multi-billion pound corporation Diageo had a 15-year lease on a significant building under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) budget yet played so little role in getting anything worthwhile to happen there? How can a family who have transformed the old Printworks into the trendiest place in town get so little support and encouragement from the powers-that-be?

c) What I find really interesting is to test out the Community Rights here. I have a feeling it could actually work! We want to save a very special building – we have nominated it as an Asset of Community Value. We want to self-define the vision for this little neighbourhood, so long ignored, so utterly top-downed that it occupies less than a quarter of the lowest level of ‘Local Plan’ consideration (Area 8), so full of regenerative potential, so determined to make change but not to be gentrified, to keep the uplift local. Can we make a Neighbourhood Plan?

I want to be fair to our council – under ridiculous pressure, spliced up, gutted, struggling, facing the consequences of some of the worst welfare decisions ever made – they do care and they are open to ideas. I always said the problem that we would experience with local government cuts was the abolition of the gate-keepers without the taking down of the gates. This was entertainingly illustrated when a colleague and I got stuck in the council offices yesterday because there was literally no-one to let us out!

When we realise that the Great Society – in LBJ’s words – is not a finished work and does not belong to ‘them’, we can really get going…! I’m looking forward to it.

Posted in Hastings Pier, Jericho Road Solutions, Seaside, Self-renovating neighbourhoods, Thinking | Leave a comment

Stories as Community Action

Pier Campaign – story version

Last week a couple of trustees of the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust were filmed for a BBC piece to be shown in the autumn which may turn into a longer documentary. It felt like we were auditioning to see if the story, and our telling of it, was up to scratch. There’s no doubt it’s a great story but is it a fable, a thriller or a soap opera? If you live inside it then it feels more like a soap – an endless series of multi-perspective tales. When you’re presenting to the world it has to be told quick. And that’s when the lessons get reduced and concentrated, so you have to make sure the right message takes hold.

I was struck by how much the presenters wanted to simplify our story to pre- and post-Fire. That’s tempting because the Fire in October 2010 was clearly a major threshold point (and highly photogenic). But a) it’s not true, and b) it’s not helpful. The story as I tell it from the perspective of the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust goes like this:

The pier is owned by Ravenclaw – the villain of the piece – a delinquent owner registered in Panama to avoid English law. They took a £1.8m mortgage from an Irish bank, made a load of cash on the top and failed to put it back in underneath. In 2006 the Council’s engineer was doing his regular inspection and a great big piece of metal came off in his hands! He ran back to the town hall crying “we must close the pier!”. And so it began.

A range of court cases got underway – most of which I managed to ignore – but they had far less long-term effect than a public meeting held in November where 200 people crammed in, with more waiting outside, and it was clear that there was the community will to save the pier. It was already clear that the local authority was not about to solve the problem and we rapidly realised that there was also no chance of a private sector solution. The only option was entrepreneurial community ownership. Sadly it took several years for the council to catch up – they were waiting for a fairy godmother; they’d give anything for a sugar daddy with wads of cash and preferably a knighthood.

So from that first public meeting in 2006 until deep into 2009 we were patronised and politely ignored. It is not enough to be right. That summer we decided to ‘up the ante’. It was time to focus on what we needed – a compulsory purchase – and get political in order to win. The Battle for Hastings Pier began when 2,000 people marched from the pier to the town hall to present a massive, gift-wrapped copy of the Manual for Compulsory Purchase. A crucial by-election saw us lead a ‘Vote Pier’ campaign, including systematic listening to local people about their concerns and a carefully stage-managed question time event by the end of which all three candidates leaped up to sign the Pier Pledge. As the votes came in, this safe Tory seat suddenly wasn’t safe anymore, and with the election of May 2010 on the horizon, Hastings Pier had at last become an issue that politicians could not ignore. Within days we were meeting with councillors in the town hall and, after a little face-saving, the council became an ‘active partner’ in January 2010. Since then every single pier vote in the council chamber has been unanimously agreed across all parties. The Tory MP and the Labour council leader will both claim equal credit!

On the evening of 4th October 2010 I was driving down the seafront, admiring the pier as the sun set beautifully behind it, on my way to a meeting at which we agreed to go out to EU-wide tender for our architects. Our lottery bid – to restore the structure closest to the land and use the buildings there to make money that would slowly restore the rest – was well underway and things were looking good.

By 2am I was back, watching with horror as a small fire at the pier head spread inexorably towards the land, with the Fire Service impotently spraying from the sidelines because of the dangerous condition of the pier after the years of neglect. We watched all night as our plans turned to smoke. With 90% of the buildings gone there was no chance of ‘progressive commercialisation’. But, like St Paul’s in the Blitz, the “YOU CAN SAVE ME” banner survived and by the dawn of that tearful, grey, burnt-asbestos morning we had decided on a new strategy. Seven weeks later we submitted our completely revised HLF bid. It’s been a long slog since, but we now have a total of £14 million lined up and the ownership is about to transfer from Ravenclaw, via the Council, to the Hastings Pier Charity. HPWRT has played its midwife role – sorted the politics, sorted the money, sorted the ownership – and is about to start on a new project – the second most challenging building in town!

So, yes the Fire was a turning point ,and yes it changed what we will do. The outpouring of emotion – both sadness and anger, the sense that a daughter of the town had not just died but been raped and left in a ditch – certainly raised the profile and fed our ‘Everyone loves the Pier’ campaign. So when HLF trustees came on an assessment visit, the town was plastered with ‘Just Say Yes’ posters. A pier is a barometer of the health of a seaside town – a dead pier is the equivalent of rotting fish in the chimney – it cannot be allowed. Fires also inevitably feed Phoenix pep talk, and optimism is oxygen for community action.

The ‘clearing of the decks’ that the Fire enabled made our long-held aspiration for a 21st century pleasure pier less complex. But it was not the Fire that made the rescue possible. If it had been that would be a depressing lesson for other challenges and other communities. Instead it was the dogged persistence of local people who refused to give up but were always willing to adapt.

“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance; yonder palace was raised by single stones, yet you see its height and spaciousness.” Samuel Johnson, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)

The narrative matters, both in the heat of battle and in the retelling. Right now in Rio, people are changing the narrative. “Demonstrations in Brazil are usually left to small groups belonging to beleaguered ‘social movements’ and therefore easily ignored… By focusing discussion on problems of transport and infrastructure, protesters are forcing politicians to face difficult questions about how they manage the city” (Damian Platt, Guardian 22/6/13). They can no longer simply blame the poor or ‘global financial crisis’ but must deal with their own role in the problem. That sharp focus is at the heart of community organising. The ‘ordinary people’ who led the recent successful campaign to save the bus service from Sheffield to Rotherham, would not take ‘austerity’ for an answer. With the support of two community organisers, they channelled the resource that all communities have – people and stories – to force a rethink by those with the power to make decisions. Power is very resilient and resistant to change – sometimes they will use tear gas and water cannons. More often in this country it’s bureaucracy and the simple tactic of ‘waiting it out’. When the narrative is right and we are capable of waiting them out (dogged persistence), change comes. Then the stories don’t just describe community action, sometimes they are community action.

I’ve just come back from Derry-Londonderry (LegenDerry as they’re calling it now), where they know full well that stories can be lethal or healing. And I’m about to set off for the annual CO Action Camp (a gathering of Community Organisers, their hosts & employers, and the local leaders they are working with). I’m story-harvesting…

Posted in Community Organisers, Hastings Pier, Thinking | 1 Comment

A month on the Jericho Road

So it’s been a month since launching Jericho Road Solutions and I’m in reflective mood. I chose to leave a good job at Locality and start out on my own because I want to be directly involved in local transformations as well as working at national level to shape policies, organisations and programmes that make local transformation easier.

As with any new business there’s been a lot of practical stuff to sort out – bank, phones, accountant, insurance, filing, website, etc. Had a couple of launch parties in London and Manchester, with fliers, badges, bunting. And I’ve spent some time walking the dog, helping my mother move house, taking out a retaining wall, doing sudoku and reading Caitlin Moran. What else?

My transition from programme management to legacy development within the Community Organisers programme is underway. I’ve been organising a Funders & Allies Forum event to be held at this year’s mega-exciting CO Action Camp. I’ve also helped out with recruitment, briefed the progression supporters, facilitated the first visioning event for CoCo the legacy body, brought together the COs across Greater Manchester in partnership with Powered by People UK, led a workshop in Blackpool with social housing tenants and workers, categorised 360 CO stories by theme, and participated in the regular programme team reflection.

At neighbourhood level I’ve begun supporting three projects:

Charterhouse Coventry – a 14th century Grade I listed monastery surrounded by a wealth of heritage assets in a 70-acre park next to the city centre, that no-one knows about! Significant potential to transform the reputation and economy of Coventry – by bringing silence. There’s a strong trust in place that has been granted the buildings and is negotiating with the local authority for a series of balancing assets to cross-subsidise. They’ve produced excellent material on the vision for the heritage park but need enterprise development support for this hyper-ambitious scheme.

London Road Fire Station, Manchester – beautiful Edwardian civic building (fire/police/coroners) occupying a whole block in spitting distance of Piccadilly station but empty for 27 years and in a ‘difficult ownership situation’. The friends group is at an early stage but already very enterprising. I’m keen to unlock some development funding for them.

Ancoats Dispensary, Manchester – where the current campaign to save the building brings back memories of the occupation of the building back in 1987-89 to protest the closure of its casualty department. Linking them up with igloo Regeneration has improved the prospects not only of winning the campaign but taking ownership of the building – a notion that would not have occurred to their 1980s predecessors but is highly likely in this new community rights’ world.

In terms of my own local (Hastings) activities – the wheels of Heritage Lottery Fund bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow, but we are expecting the formal transfer of ownership for Hastings Pier late July and work will start immediately to demolish the remaining fire-twisted debris and begin the restoration. It has been wonderful to know that the ‘midwifery’ of the project by the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust will have delivered community ownership, £14 million and a dedicated charity to take the project forward. Now the White Rock Trust will drop the HP and focus on another important and neglected asset – the 7-storey Observer Building and its immediate surrounds.



At national level, Jericho Road is working with Locality, igloo Regeneration and the Prince’s Regeneration Trust to develop the Demeter Service – a dating, mating, translating and relating service between communities and private developers, particularly important as the new HLF Heritage Enterprise Scheme requires such partnerships. Developers and community groups don’t tend to go to the same parties and there’s a lot of mutual distrust. Yet they have a great deal to offer each other.

I’ve written to Don Foster, Minister for Communities, about the problem of irresponsible ownership and how we need to link up local support for groups struggling to rescue precious assets from delinquent owners with a national campaign, and policy development to tackle the problem.

My role as a non-exec director of Meanwhile Space CIC continues to inspire me, especially as we evolve a new business strand involving freehold acquisitions to create ‘permanent meanwhile’ spaces that will include live-work. The Meanwhile Foundation has now achieved charitable status and will become a useful ‘plug-in tool’ to help make meanwhile projects happen everywhere.

With many others, I participated in Big Lottery Fund’s development work around a new programme, currently known as ‘Enriching Places, Enterprising Communities’ but which I hope will end up as Enterprising Projects in Communities, or EPIC! I hope this could be a chance to begin to develop the self-renovating neighbourhoods concept I wrote about last year.

I haven’t yet got back in the saddle for the Seaside Towns Economic Partnership but practical solidarity between seaside towns to build their economic and political power is a brilliant idea that hasn’t gone away. I did manage to win a peer-to-peer learning competition on the back of a bad pun, so watch out for the People’s Piers UK.

I have a code in my timesheet for ‘learning’ (unfunded unfortunately!) and this month it has included attending the first meeting of the Strategic Advisory Group for the AHRC Connected Communities research programme and starting work with two Manchester-based academics on a research project to showcase ‘Model 5′ community governance (ie where communities are fully engaged in co-production). Under the same code I spent a day with a visiting Kiwi community entrepreneur, and an evening with a Social Innovation Strategist from the Australian government (which included hearing a lecture by Francis Maude on ‘Ministers and Mandarins’). I had another coaching session with the wonderful Pam Lidford and I allowed Professor Jenny Pearce of Bradford University to ‘systematise my learning’.

It’s been a brilliant month, I’ve set another load of plates spinning, just need to make sure I can stay underneath them all…!

Posted in Community Organisers, Hastings Pier, Jericho Road Solutions, Locality, Meanwhile, Seaside, Self-renovating neighbourhoods, Thinking | 1 Comment

The Spaces Between – Boundary Spanning 20 years ago

My biography always begins “Jess Steele bridges policy and practice to develop new intellectual territory, ventures and programmes…”

Collaborating Across Sectors

I have always been interested in boundary-spanning – cross-sectoral, cross-community, inter-generational work; match-making between public, private and third sectors; travelling and translating between official and informal worlds.

The danger of spinning plates for a living is that you move too fast to embed what went before. Sometimes I’ve spent an evening designing a database or drafting a report only to find a previous version when I go to save. As part of setting up Jericho Road Solutions I promised myself I would try to consolidate some of what I already knew.

This essay from September 1993 was an early exploration of these spaces in between and the creative approaches that can span them. It was written for my MSc in Social Anthropology at the exact time I was writing Turning the Tide: the history of everyday Deptford (published Nov 1993). This was the academic work with an undercurrent of passion, while TTT was the popular offering which snuck theory in between the stories.

The essay reappeared recently in my mum’s preparations for moving house. I have scanned the whole essay – partly so we can delight in the dot matrix printing – and typed below just the section on ‘community history as the mediator between anthropology and history’. I like this section – it throws me back those two decades to a big desk in an 1810 cottage on the A2 where the computer (an Amstrad 9512 – no web, no email, no mobile, no social media, but a damn good contacts database) was just one of the tools of my work – along with hundreds of books, the old GPO-style phone, glorious amounts of stationery, a fluffy black kitten, a rusty old Datsun, and the meagre but essential funds supplied by six burglaries which, irregularly but frequently, swapped my stuff for insurance cash. Ah, nostalgia for New Cross!!!

* * * * *

A Historian among the Anthropologists: Excavating the Field

Section 5. The place of community history as median of history and anthropology.

Where does local history fit into the anthropology-history continuum? Its subject is the small-scale community and its practitioners must face, even if they cannot answer, the nebulous and elusive character of ‘community’ with its minimum of 94 distinct definitions! They must read the social science literature which proclaims the death of community but unless they can continue to believe in the notion (even if only to the extent that it means something important in the minds of their ‘informants’ ) they will give up the project.

Community studies, historical or otherwise, must also recognise the boundary problems Leach identified in Political Systems of Highland Burma. However, as long as we have no delusions of containment or uniformity we need not be disabled by them. Local history has to take account of mobility, migration and fluid populations, all of whom have a right to be considered as part of the contemporary community, all of whom have a history which belongs to the locality though it originates far away and may end elsewhere. In a modern inner city context there will be questions about housing policies which brought people to the area or decanted them away.

Community history takes not one aspect or sub-theme of historical process but many, in an effort to understand how they have related to each other to produce the present form of the locality. Local history emphasises diachrony, focusing on both change and continuity over time. At appropriate moments of its story, it provides vignettes of specific institutions, events and characters.

The ultimate goal of community or local history depends on whether it is popular or academic. In general popular local history tends to be more impressionistic, to tell more stories and includes more incidental detail. Less explicitly theoretical, it will employ a different kind of language and make no presumption of a common body of specialist knowledge. Its aims will probably include the development of community pride and a historical understanding which can help people to participate in the changes occurring around them in the present. Academic studies of the history of local areas are more often a way to provide a microscopic example or refutation of a broader hypothesis within national or international historical debates. They tend to cover shorter time-spans in more detail and they show their interest in the area with more subtlety.

The overall method of study will be broadly similar to that outlined above for both anthropology and history. With the help of a chronology (which must often be constructed from scratch) and a map, one looks first for the ‘obvious’ features. What are the main topographic features? How have these been utilised? What kinds of people have lived in this area at different times? Why have they come? Why have they left? What has been the relationship with other areas? Intertwined with the growing knowledge this research brings is the emergence of an appropriately localised ‘historical imagination’ with its own consistency in making connections between various aspects of the locality’s past. Comparisons with other places are often crucial to academic local history and also play a role in the popular version. People are very mobile, they have plenty of information about other places and they need to know why their own area is important. The community historian also makes inferences from known facts about national or regional histories in the light of known aspects of the local.

Technically the method of the local historian lies mid-way between that of the field-worker and that of the historian. I would argue that community history can only be properly written after (and possibly during) intensive participant observation. Even if the period under study does not extend into the time of living memory, local history has to include some ‘history on the ground’. Topographical features provide a background continuity on which historical development is overlain.

The technique involves a mixture of direct and indirect experience of the subject, of interviews and archival research. Although there may be only a limited range of documentary source materials, Macfarlane has shown the enormous amount of information such sources (parish registers, wills and deeds, diaries, council minutes) can provide with intensive research. This is a great advantage but, even after 20 years of innovation and improvement in computer technology, Macfarlane’s assertion of the impossibility of fully utilising these sources still holds true. Their biases remain as much of a problem as their enormous potential. It is necessary then to be very selective and critical of documentary sources. Historians are used to this.

It is impossible to interview a ‘representative’ section of any urban community and the results of those interviews which are undertaken must be treated with the same vigour demanded by written sources. Community history has to find the stories which were never written. It seeks out everyday life in the nostalgic and methodologically troublesome memories of the elderly’ the frustration or self-congratulation of the activist; the bureaucratic exculpation of generations of power-holders; the first impressions of newly-arrived refugees; the racist scape-goating of the dispossessed, and a hundred other special perspectives which make up the patterns of community life. Anthropologists are used to this.

Local historians are usually involved in the creation of data. They record interviews, take photographs, draft maps, tabulate census figures. Their work often has an impact on the contemporary development of their subject in a way quite common for anthropologists but very rare with national history. Borofsky describes how he worked with a group of Pukapukan teachers to produce an English-Pukapukan dictionary. During the process, and he describes similar pones for previous anthropologists on Pukapuka, traditions were both invented and revived. Preservation is also a transformation.

In some ways community historians are not like historians or anthropologists. Community historians, especially in the inner city context, are also community workers and not only through popularising history. We find ourselves involved in campaigning to save buildings or modify development plans, fundraising for museums or to produce newspapers or exhibitions which record the present as it slides into the past, running projects with children which emphasise local pride and give them a stake in neighbourhood resources. Collingwood’s view that progress depends on historical thought becomes very clear to the local historian. We cannot help but feel concerned that those who are planning our community’s future have no understanding of its past or about-to-be-bulldozed present.

I will be accused of over-involvement and romanticism. So be it. My towers are made of concrete not ivory and that makes a difference. Living on a four-lane highway which is also the Roman road from Dover to London, one can mimic the ethnographer’s smugness and say one knows the world outside in a ‘concrete’ fashion. After years of historical research there is no desire to ignore the processes by which that world was formed. When the field is also home and the sounds of police sirens permeate the write-up, the distancing tactic is avoided and the dichotomy of Self and Other is resolved.

The full essay is here: A Historian Among the Anthropologists

Posted in Jericho Road Solutions, Just Me, Thinking | Leave a comment