My favourite definition of an entrepreneur is someone who sets out to do something without controlling the resources to do it.
I’ve been an entrepreneur a long time. Since my dad got me to write a history of Deptford in the early 1990s and I realised I didn’t want to send it off to some publisher for it to come back covered in someone else’s red marks, so instead we set up a publishing company. I knew absolutely nothing about publishing (the file from those times is still on my shelves and it’s called ‘the mysterious world of publishing’). But I learned quick, and because I was never a professional I always questioned and was always up for a new approach – a good thing during the publishing transformation of the 1990s. My first book was typeset on an old Atari games computer using adapted German software by the fabulous Peter Hill of Community Desktop Publishing. It was followed by 19 other books, each a technological step ahead of the last. And the publishing business was followed by 19 other enterprises (including a community newspaper, creative outreach charity, childcare nursery, heritage & environment consultancy, financial management for voluntary organisations).
I also know a fair amount about buildings. I make a living from helping neighbourhood groups all over the country take on challenging buildings. In Deptford I intervened with buildings from an old library to Victorian underground toilets; I was Heritage Officer in Croydon; at Locality I supported dozens of asset transfers; for Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust I spent 7 years inside the most complicated asset development project of recent years. Jericho Road clients include:
- two old hospitals
- three piers and a lido
- a theatre and a cinema, a pub and an old town hall
- the Seething Wells filter beds
- and some long-blighted housing in Liverpool.
So although my focus areas, honed over the years, are organisational readiness, funding and building community support, given the client base I couldn’t help but learn a few things about buildings.
My driving passion is the control of gentrification. I believe that community freehold ownership – pepper-potted through a neighbourhood – has the potential to capture the benefits of gentrification and tackle its horrors by locking in affordability to create a mixed community in perpetuity. In many places it is too late, in a few it is too early. In Hastings and especially in the White Rock area, we are JUST IN TIME.
But now, for the sake of this dream, I’m actually trying to be a developer with a real and actual building and OMG it’s hard. I finally understand why they might deserve a reasonable profit at the end of it all!
More than half empty and increasingly scruffy, we were apprehensive about the end of the 25-year lease that was keeping it at least well-maintained internally. It also ‘happens to be’ next door to the Observer Building (which we tried to buy).
So we didn’t get that one. But we have brought Rock House into social ownership with the written-in potential to transfer into full community ownership. The idea is to convert it to 4 floors residential, 4 floors creative workspace, with a community club-space on the top floor and roof terrace.
It all made sense to buy the building. Then the difficult stuff begins!
Over the coming months I’ll try to document this process. Right now it feels like the big issues/lessons are:
CAPITAL – we need some truly engaged and/or truly patient investors. What we find instead is all kinds of programmes designed by funders for their own purposes. They mean well but they design topsy-turvy processes – inside-out and top-down, blind and deaf but noisy. Who will bring some proper investment specifically for this building in this neighbourhood because the value proposition is so bleeding obvious?
FIND FUNKY – I’m so happy that the lovely Kate Renwick has moved in to develop the Hastings Arts School. We need a ‘wow’; most developers would buy an architect or an interior designer for that. We’ve got Kate – who appeared out of nowhere (out of the network, of course) just at the perfect moment, and will be the curator for the building, working with local and other artists to achieve the decoration of the communal areas – lift, stairs, vitrine gallery, 6th floor.
FIRE SAFETY & OTHER RULES. I just found out today that we can’t have non-residential uses above the residential which basically screws the idea we’ve been developing all along of a community clubspace on the top floor and roof terrace. It’s infuriating – blanket risk analysis leads to the idea that mixed use is ‘difficult’ and the only way to do it is new-build. It’s no wonder we don’t revitalise and so much ‘regeneration’ is actually renewal through destruction. I know from my work on ‘community assets in difficult ownership’ that the Rules are trammelled by vested interests, bureaucracy and fear of risk.
But, you know what, I’m an optimist and a problem-solver. So the top floor will start as the residents’ lounge and we’ll return more strongly to the original vision of a co-housing project. Ours is co-habitation because it also includes the creative enterprises throughout the building. And we’ll keep trying to find ways to make sure that the from the top of Rock House belong to everyone…