I am losing my heart to Ore Valley

 

I feel like a love-struck teenager. I’ve always been in love with places, and always attracted to the underdogs – my towns Deptford and Hastings and all the other-people’s-places that I fall in love with: Blackpool, Scarborough, Bradford, Greater Manchester, Liverpool 8. If I had more time I’d like to get to know Maryport, Jaywick, and the scruffy bit of Swindon!

But I don’t need to leave town to find the most perfect example of a place that has been continuously stamped on by an outside elite for 200 years. A place with both acute and chronic poverty, but where that is only one of the facts of life within a lively, distinctive culture and a valley-full of greenery. A place where dereliction has been created and sustained through state policy, private greed and dysfunctional ‘regeneration’ policies. Here the land and the people have been separated since the power station closed in the early 1980s. In the imaginations of the Regenerators, the land would be ‘solved’ through capitalism – private developers building boxes. The people would be ‘solved’ through social services. And never the twain shall meet.

Well, they’re meeting now!

The Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust took a licence on the power station land in August last year.The ‘Bottom Up Development’ (BUD) Team has opened the site pretty much every Saturday since then, growing to include Dan, Darren, Brian, Ian, Andros, Jenny and more all the time.  We’ve had 101 people at site days as well as the 150 who came to our events like Warm Up Ore Valley in November. The land seduces people – everyone who comes falls for it, at least until they get really cold! As the spring arrives, we’re hoping to grow our container into a little homestead.

Meanwhile, Sam Kinch, our community organiser, and his outreach team – Joe and Thilika – have been out knocking doors in the Valley – 1848 of them! Over 400 people in Ore Valley have said they want to be part of it or at the very least kept informed. 277 of them have been ‘listened to’ – a strange idea until you think how rare and wonderful just being listened to is!

One of the most amazing things is that it doesn’t feel like a clique. One of the team told me he feels completely comfortable and welcome turning up. There is an open feeling about the site that quietly welcomes and absorbs newcomers on the same level as anyone else. There’s enough room, it seems to be saying.

Each of us brings our own skills, and we all also bring our demons: that might be being a bit bossy, or it might be a physical or mental health issue. or the situation at home, or previous baggage, or just having bad days. Of course we fight – there are stand-offs and smears and squabbles. This is the stuff of relationships and it’s usually due to a strong sense of ownership. If someone new tries to take over it’s not long before they are told straight that this is a collective effort. Everyone’s welcome and not everyone is the same.

But for now, and by rights forever, the land is ours… and I’m lovin’ it!

 

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1,000 Days

Jericho Road Solutions is 1,000 days old today, and I’m determined to carve out a little time to reflect on the experience and some of the lessons so far.

It’s been an honour to work with ambitious, stubborn, creative leaders in communities across the country, to support them to take action on what matters to them. For me the focus is usually on buildings that are precious to local people but are for some reason ‘stuck’ – through delinquent ownership, unviable renovation costs, conflictual politics, dysfunctional land markets, or any combination of circumstances too risky for the market and too complex for the state.

In my experience, the solutions to these situations can only be devised and led by independent social-mission organisations created by local people. They will not do that alone, but their allies will not be the status-driven ‘regeneration partnerships’ that were such a feature of 1990s/2000s regeneration. Instead they make real action-oriented, risk-sharing relationships that can help deliver the rescue. Sometimes (eg Bognor) that is with the owner or (eg LRFS) potential new owners; sometimes (eg Ancoats, Flimwell) it’s a developer; in Hastings we do joint ventures between social enterprises. The attitude of the local authority always colours the backdrop to our work, where we’re lucky that’s in positive ways!

  • Helping Ancoats Dispensary Trust (Manchester) to partner with igloo regeneration, win £5m of Heritage Lottery money and appoint Karen Houghton as CEO

  • Helping Bognor Pier Trust to raise grant funds and work with the current owner to achieve ‘rescue before ruin’ 

night-pier

Bognor Regis Pier

  • Helping Our Yard to take on and redevelop Clitterhouse Farm as a base for community business activity in the context of the massive Brent Cross redevelopment

  • Helping Friends of London Road Fire Station in their ultimately successful campaign to shift this beautiful building out of long-term delinquent ownership

  • Helping local residents form Action for St Mary’s Hall in Hastings, seeking to solve the long-standing problem of its dereliction proactively rather than defensively

  • Helping the civic society and cricket club at Mitcham (the oldest cricket ground in the world) to achieve the security it needs to grow into a year-round whole-community resource

Sometimes, rarely, there is a project where the only ‘problem’ is taking up the challenge by putting the very best practice in place

  • Helping the owner/developer of 50 acres of woodland at Flimwell with planning permission for an exciting development of 5 houses, 8 studio workspaces, a large educational building and some overnight accommodation, to make this ‘a community project’.

I love to work directly with local people and neighbourhood groups but it is often frustrating when they all face the same problems whose roots are in policy, legislation, funding structures or wider attitudes. That’s why I also work with government, funders, corporates and academics on programmes, organisations and policy that aim to make it easier on the ground. The Jericho Road is a two-way street between neighbourhood and national.

  • CADO – Community Assets in Difficult Ownership (aka Campaign Against Delinquent Ownership). Highlight and tackle delinquent owners of precious assets. We worked with 10 demonstrator projects providing expert advice, peer learning and small grants to make progress on ‘unsticking’ precious buildings from delinquent ownership. The CADO demonstrators have taught me so much, expanding and embedding my niche but useful knowledge in the field. And, inevitably, I have fallen in love with most of the buildings! 

LRnew

London Road Fire Station

  • ‘Demeter’ is a concept about the relationship between community and private sector partners – that it’s all about Dating, Mating, Translating, and Relating! The Demeter idea was tested through the BRICK Brokers project (funded by HLF, via PRT and Locality) which provided a broker for four pilot projects to support community-private partnerships around heritage buildings. 

hades-and-persephone

Hades & Persephone – partners from very different cultures!

  • In the first year of Jericho Road I was retained by Locality as Associate Director for Community Organising to support the development of the legacy body (then called CoCo, now CO Ltd). During that time I worked with community organisers to develop this CO Scaffolding diagram. The idea was to fit on a single page something that would be recognized by all community organisers regardless of their background or methods. I’ve used it to structure all kinds of workshops and training and find it works well. All comments would be very welcome. The diagram is licensed ‘creative commons’ so anyone can use it. 

Scaffolding with CC

In the past year Jericho Road has ‘come home to Hastings’. I’m proud that I was able to bring together three social-mission organisations – JRS, Meanwhile Space and White Rock Trust – in the purchase and redevelopment of Rock House. It’s been an incredible journey so far; every day brings new levels of stress and new highs from watching this mad, risky, wonderful project take shape.

RockHouseendlessposs

Rock House – Endless Possibilities

 

But just as, for me, Hastings Pier was most important as a symbol of community tenacity, Rock House is the pathfinder for a bigger prize – the development of the Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust with its two pillars:

  • buying property into community freehold in the White Rock area, including renovating difficult buildings, and then capping rents to make sure there are always affordable places to live and work.
  • promoting community self-build in Ore Valley, using the Organisation Workshop to transform hopeless derelict space, change people’s lives and build new collective community enterprises

 

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places plains, and the crooked places will be made straight.” Martin Luther King, August 28 1963. Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

Are we any closer to ‘exalting the valleys’ or transforming the Jericho Road? Maybe we’re closer to having the ambition and the tools to do so. If there is one capacity I aim to build in the people I work with it is AGENCY – the ability to believe you can do something. On the 1,000th day I want to pay tribute to all the ‘ordinary’ people who simply wont take no for an answer, and hope that I have helped to build their credibility, capability and above all, confidence.

 

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New Year’s Honours

I am delighted to have been awarded an OBE for Services to Community Assets in the New Year’s Honours list, largely for my role in the rescue of Hastings Pier from closure in 2006 to reopening in 2016.

Jericho Road Solutions helps local leaders across the country to take on challenging buildings that they care about.

Looking forward to many more exciting projects in 2016!

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Locality 2015

IMG_6511Jericho Road had a fantastic time at the Locality 2015 Convention in Liverpool. We caught up with old friends and made new ones, discovered some great projects and sold a lot of tea towels! We heard from some inspiring speakers from neighbourhoods all over the world including a particularly captivating talk by Jason Roberts of Build a Better Block from Dallas who, along with his neighbours, transformed the neighbourhood they live in. All the things they wanted to do to change their neighbourhood were against the rules – so they did them anyway and attached copies of the rules to their fine work, promoting debate. It was great to hear about the successes emerging from their sustained impatience (a favourite Jericho Road theme)

IMG_6518During the Convention, Jericho Road hosted two masterclasses which focused delegates on their own journeys to ‘investment readiness’, encouraging them to define their starting point or location (where they are now) and their destination (where they want to be) and to decide how to get from one point to the other. All journeys need fuel so we shared ideas about a range of different funding sources and other resources available to social enterprises. Journeys are also impacted by all varieties of weather. Sometimes it feels like travelling through fog; other times you have a fair wind behind you. Delegates considered the operating environment: how to navigate through difficult weather and make the most of it when the sun shines. You can see the write-up of the Fuel and Weather sessions here.

It was clear from talking to people on the JRS stand that there are many passionate and engaging people with interesting projects.

“What unites Locality members is a sense of ambition for their local neighbourhood, an enterprising approach to finding local solutions to local problems, and a clear sense that activity should be community-led and based on self-determination”
Locality Convention Newspaper 2015

And the same goes for Jericho Road neighbourhoods. We’d love to see you all in York at Locality 2016.

IMG_6508

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America Ground Pow Wow!

The first America Ground Pow Wow, held on 6th October, aimed to maintain and expand a local conversation which was kicked off by White Rock Trust earlier this year to ask the questions: is gentrification happening, if so is it a problem, if so is there anything we can do about it?

This led to a project to establish a community land trust and a cross-sectoral project team is now taking this forwards. While the project team gets on with the detailed development work, the Pow Wow is a way to continue the wider dialogue with local residents, businesses and stakeholders. We talked about what we value in the neighbourhood and want to protect, what doesn’t work and we’d like to lose, and the threats and opportunities we see coming.

The notes from the event can be downloaded here: AG Pow Wow 1 notes

A set of Frequently Asked Questions about the development of the CLT can be downloaded here: Heart of Hastings CLT – FAQs

 

TrinityTriangleMap

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What’s happening to Hastings?

Change is underway…

The Pier will reopen next spring. Local businesses will see footfall improve and new business are already opening up. After years in which the powers-that-be ignored our seafront in favour of ‘grade A’ offices and White Rock was just the gap between Hastings and St Leonards, now the great ‘legacy’ assets of the area (the pier, White Rock Baths, Bottle Alley, the Observer Building, Holy Trinity Church, and the White Rock Gardens) are being brought back to life. We can be proud of the passionate efforts of local people that have made this happen and excited about the prospects for our neighbourhood.

And yet… house prices are shifting fast and rents are rising. We’re facing three new waves of DFLs at the same time. Alongside those poorer families priced out of London by welfare changes, are those who can sell a flat in London and buy several houses here. Far more worrying though is the move of ‘soulless capital – speculative investors that never come to live here, just make a killing out of the ‘rent gap’ – the difference between what a landlord is receiving at the moment and what they could get with a ‘higher and better use’ or indeed no use at all, just wait while the prices rise and extract the uplift.

The America Ground is at the heart of these changes – both positive and negative. With its fascinating story of a land battle lost by the people in the 1830s, could it be the centrepiece for a new resolutions of these tensions?

We’ve seen what happens to places that get gentrified. Cheap housing and run-down edginess attracts creative types – not rich but resourceful, with plenty of ‘cultural capital’ that they invest locally, converting it into nice cafes, galleries, art-house cinemas, and all kinds of interesting events. Building on the diversity and vibrancy of the existing population, their efforts spotlight the rent gap and it begins to fill in. As prices rise, displacement begins – both of actual local residents and of the kind of people who might have come to live here in the past. When housing costs surge, the only people who can afford the neighbourhood are from a narrow band of high earners. Very few will work in the low-wage economy of Hastings – they will be commuters; shopping in M&S on the way home, buying their clothes and haircuts in London, driving out to the ‘villages’ for dinner. Business opportunities shift again – to serve affluent weekend-only customer and the old eclectic diversity is lost. It’s painfully predictable and, though some would say ‘it’ll never happen here’, that’s how it starts: the average house price in Hackney is now £686,000 and renting a flat costs on average £1,775 per month.

What can be done? No-one’s saying we can or should stop the change, but might we be able to capture the benefits and control the downside? What if we brought a small proportion of properties – both residential and commercial – into community freehold and capped rents so that there would always be affordable space in the heart of Hastings? What if we extended that by starting a Good Landlords Club with incentives for landlords to ensure stable rents and decent quality?

The America Ground Community Land Trust is being set up, with support from the White Rock Trust, to do just that. At the moment we are gathering the questions we need to ask ourselves, and we would really appreciate your help with that!

What do you think?

Come and talk about these issues and hear about the work of the community land trust at the first America Ground Quarterly Pow Wow!

Free pizza as long as you RSVP!

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Two Piers and a Lesson for Local Government

Hastings Pier

Hastings Pier

Colwyn Bay

Colwyn Bay

Spot the difference. The real difference between the circumstances – which were almost exactly four years apart – is very simple. The attitude of the council.

In Hastings it took a long time and a lot of effort to persuade our council but once we did they were an active partner. At the end of 2008 our first HLF bid was rejected – mainly because the council were “luke-warm”. By the middle of 2010 they were on board and we were meeting fortnightly to progress the project. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, knowledge of other piers, and maybe rose-tinted mourning spectacles (for Councillor Jeremy Birch who died 6/5/15), they were amazing.

When I told Hastings Borough Council officers and councillors about the Colwyn Bay situation, I said it was as if East Sussex County Council had decided to demolish Hastings Pier and were going all out to do so against the wishes of the people and elected council for the town. We were united in horror at that thought!

It seems outrageous, and it is, that Conwy County Borough Council, having spent so much effort explaining why Victoria Pier is a great asset that must be saved, won a significant HLF grant but failed to progress the project despite advice and gave the money back, then proceeded to seek consent to demolish against the expressed wish of people in Colwyn Bay.

The rules are clear. In order to get permission to demolish, CCBC must show that all other avenues have been explored. Yet they have scuppered the best possible chance of saving the pier by not providing ‘clear support’ to the HLF bid. Colwyn Victoria Pier Trust are arguing that this means Cadw should reject the demolition application and CCBC should work with the Trust and the Town Council to support them in re-submitting an HLF Major Grants application for 30 November 2015.

There is no doubt that the Trust has grown in size, confidence and capability over the past 18 months. The partnership with the Town Council is strong and complementary. HLF say the project qualified for support. Is the county council big enough to admit its mistake and try again? Or will grudges and egos win out, and Victoria Pier be lost forever?

There is a lesson here for all heritage projects. Getting the council on board is essential. It might take years of hard-slog campaigning so start straight away!

There is an even more important lesson for local government. I told CCBC that a Russian oligarch coming with a potential £10m would have been given a better welcome than local people doing the same but also with jobs and training, and promising to save the most important heritage asset in town!

Why does local government so often sneer at community input? You’re short of money and here are dedicated volunteers working to bring money in. You just have to be helpful. That includes constructive challenge, technical expertise, using your legal powers when required, and most importantly political will of the kind that Jeremy Birch showed in spades. While the reopened Hastings Pier will be a tribute to Councillor Birch (as well as many others!), it would be a great tragedy if the inadequacies of a small Welsh county borough council are allowed to dictate the fate of one of the most beautiful piers ever built. Your call, Cadw?

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