Report! Metropolitan Field Trip London

London’s social entrepreneurial spirit is here to stay

Over the past few years, the United Kingdom has been celebrated throughout Europe for its progressiveness towards active citizenship, by means of law executed in the Localism Act. But as we learned during our Metropolitan Field Trip to London, the UK has an enduring tradition of social entrepreneurship and community enterprises that came into being long before the Big Society model was even introduced in 2010.  

Often depicted as the financial centre of Europe, London today ever more evokes the archetype of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. On the one hand there is Canary Wharf, with the world’s most influential banks and financial institutions stacked in infinite high rises on the former West India Docks in Tower Hamlets, East London. A powerful image of a city reinventing itself in the transition from the industrial age to a more service oriented economy. Dotted with raked lawns, marble fountains and carefully curated flower beds, serviced by the shiny new Jubilee tube line and sounding Emirates Air Line – a sponsored cable car flying over the docklands – it’s easy to tell where investments are prioritized. But the financial boom of the City and beyond has its darker sides, its winners but definitely losers too. Throughout Greater London both the super rich and poorest income groups on the two ends of the continuum are growing, leaving a shrinking middle class and staggering inequality figures, increasingly unfitting to European standards. Boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea face streets aligned with houses with blinds shuttered, consciously kept vacant by their overseas owners. A grim indication that London has become a playground for speculating foreign investors. Housing prices are ever on the rise, pushing less affluent Londoners towards the outskirts.

Emirates Airline over the London Docks

On a more positive note however, the global financial crisis sparked a spirit of social entrepreneurship uncomparable to any other European city. As a consequence of the city’s economic difficulties, the scale and amount of initiatives taken by active citizens and engaged entrepreneurs in London has seriously taken off recently. Prime minister David Cameron’s proclamation of the Big Society programme in 2010 further enhanced its significance, through the implementation of a series of governmental instruments that are meant to facilitate civic initiative and participation. But in reality, some of the best practices have been around for many years already.

Localism Act

In recent years international attention has been given primarily to the UK’s governmental strategies named under the Localism Act. The act was implemented in order to shift power from the central government to local civil servants, communities and citizens. Attempting to put an end to bureaucratic decision making processes, existing legislation was reassessed and where necessary adjusted accordingly. By redefining the role of the central government into a facilitating one towards local actors, together with providing space for innovation and experimentation, it was believed to bring along a sense of ownership and encourage citizens to take responsibility over their own lives. Therefore, the Localism Act has brought a series of legislative changes in order to prioritize community initiative over the interests of more established stakeholders.

The most notable examples of that being the Community Rights to Build, Bid and Challenge and the programme of Neighbourhood Planning. The latter invites residents of a designated area to co-create the future layout of the neighbourhood, through organizing themselves in a forum that brings multiple stakeholders to the table. The local municipality provides a basic framework, such as the amount of housing planned throughout the area. As long as the new neighbourhood plan meets the requirements established by the municipality and the process is executed carefully, it yields a statutory plan. Although the Neighbourhood Planning programme is quite a demanding procedure, in practice it seems to serve a secondary objective: creating a well-organized and knowledgeable community, that experiences ownership and knows how to express their community rights. One of the rights that is commonly put to practice is the Community Right to Bid, meant to extend the bidding term when public or private real estate is brought to the market. This provides a window of time for community groups to enhance its chances to raise the necessary funds. Therefore it enables social enterprises to compete with more affluent investors, and seeks to prevent speculation on public real estate.

Pioneering City Makers

As we learned through manifold conversations with London’s early City Makers, the implementation of the Localism Act is perhaps best understood as a result of a long tradition of social entrepreneurship in the UK. Nevertheless, the support of statutory rights may just help its further dissemination over London’s urban society.

Coin Street family houses

On the South Bank of the Thames lies a 55.000 m2 mixed use neighbourhood developed by Coin Street Community Builders. Resulting a successful campaign raised by residents of Bankside in 1984 meant to prevent the construction of expensive office spaces on the then derelict waterfront, they established a social enterprise with an annual turnover of eight million pounds today. By proposing an alternative plan rather than merely objecting the existing one, they were able to obtain the land from the Greater London Council. Over the course of 30 years they developed a neighbourhood consisting of 220 co-operative houses with outstanding value for money. The majority of the family houses are affordable one to five bedroom low-rise buildings, surrounded by community gardens, a public park, sports and welfare facilities. One of their flagship projects is the redevelopment of the Oxo Tower Wharf, now housing galleries, restaurants, cafes, apartments and shops. What is notable about Coin Street is how they consciously take the time to allow for the staged development of the neighbourhood, supported by a sustainable business and organizational model. They generate revenue through renting out venue spaces, conducting consultancy jobs, or allowing temporary commercial uses of so far undeveloped plots. Corporations such as Shell and IBM that reside adjacent to the area pay a membership fee, out of interest for their employees that use the public space of Coin Street. Their success is in their own terms determined by their ability to tailor the narrative to a wide range of stakeholders, which granted them public support throughout the 1980s and up until today allows them to develop the neighbourhood they desired as the radical activists they once were.

Unleashing healthy communities

The borough of Tower Hamlets in East London is perhaps the most outstanding example of everything that is unjust about London’s current socio-economic affairs. Just steps away from Canary Wharf’s wealth, lies the district of Bromley-by-bow, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the entire United Kingdom. Amidst the hardships of this largely immigrant community lies the Bromley by Bow Centre, housed in a refurbished church. Their extensively integrated approach makes it difficult to provide the centre with a clear definition. Bromley by Bow is a community organisation that works as an incubator for social entrepreneurship, offering a wide variety of educational programmes, as well as an informal meeting place for residents, with a restaurant and community kitchen run by one of their members, a children’s daycare, a local art institution and a health centre – although they deliberately avoid the last title. This has to do with their believe that medical treatment alone doesn’t establish a healthy community. Their mission is based upon studies that show how health and well-being are for the most part driven by social determinants (70%) rather than just clinical factors (30%). Therefore they focus on individuals’ lives and all facets that determine their state of being. ‘The starting point of our approach is the assumption that people possess the power to achieve amazing things’, says Dan Hopewell, director of Knowledge and Innovation.

Lunch at the Bromley by Bow Centre

Working in an integrated manner means for example that the annual moment for the elderly residents of Tower Hamlets to get their flu shot, is taken as a chance to check upon their overall well-being by not just a physician but also social workers, a financial counselor, a dietist, and so on. The Bromley by Bow Centre is able to provide these services with the help of over 60 revenue streams, ranging from charities to government subsidy. ‘We turn in our subsidy applications accordingly to the silos that institutions are usually organized in, such as social or economic affairs or the health department’, entrusts Dan regarding their financial strategy. ‘The money is then spent in an integrated manner, but reported back in the corresponding silos.’ Now that’s what we call inventive!

Enlightenment and repressive tolerance

This Metropolitan Field Trip organised with our London partner Locality, a membership organisation of over 500 community enterprises throughout the UK, provided us with some interesting footnotes to the international celebration of Localism. The legislative changes surely have some beneficial effects, such as the statutory priority that is given to civic initiative in some cases. Furthermore, the requirements for undertaking the implementation of the Community Rights is almost reminiscent of a modern day enlightenment ideal, creating smart citizens. Communities are encouraged to become organized and exceptionally articulate, raising a threshold for the often criticized hobbyism of City Makers. But the question arises if that doesn’t affect the unique experimental nature of civic initiatives, and with it its innovative and adaptive qualities. What some of London’s best practices show, is that time is a crucial factor for success. Time that is not always given in the gradual process that is associated with the execution of the Localism Act. The Right to Bid may provide an extension, but that is usually a period of six months.

Nevertheless, ownership still seems to be key for community groups to invest time and resources and establish a financially sustainable project. Therefore, if the Right to Bid helps to keep the bigger investors at bay for a while, this is better than nothing in the current investment climate of the city of London. The entrepreneurial spirit that underlies some of the most successful community enterprises in the UK precedes the Big Society programme however. City Makers in London are not reluctant to make money, as long as they intend to spend it wisely. Doing business with the private sector is not ruled out by idealistic purism. It is questioned whether the level of investment made by London’s private sector in Corporate Social Responsibility programmes is even balancing out the harm they are doing to the city as a whole. A pessimist may say that the public-private partnerships in London are a relatively cheap indulgence for the real estate speculation and staggering living costs. A similar thing could be said about the Big Society programme, that is often depicted as merely an instrument in public budget cuts. As for the shift of power it promised to bring along, it is noteworthy that the Localism Act is executed on carefully appointed and usually very non-strategic cases. Whether this is a form of repressive tolerance to avoid the activism that in the past resulted in influential community enterprises such as Coin Street Community Builders, only time will tell.

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The Ivy House

In recent years pub owners across the UK are struggling to keep their beloved neighbourhood living rooms in viable business. So was The Ivy House pub in Nunhead, until it was closed down in 2012 and about to be refurbished into residential accommodation. A group of determined residents decided to take action against the plans of the new property owner. It became the first pub to be listed as an Asset of Community Value, which permitted the execution of the Community Right to Bid. They raised over a million pounds to buy the historic pub, and reopened it in 2013. Ever since it is a cooperatively owned pub, and used for community activities including theatre and music performances.

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Bankside Open Spaces Trust

As many cities throughout Europe, London faces declining budgets for the maintenance of public parks and gardens. Bankside Open Spaces Trust manages over a dozen urban oases in the City, funded through generous donations, public-private partnership models and the help of many local volunteers. Among them are edible gardens, a public sports facility for neighbourhood schools, rose gardens, church patches and a former public graveyard, where prostitutes and otherwise colorful Londoners lay buried. In recent years the Trust has engaged in the Neighbourhood Planning programme and set up a forum, in which the local municipality and large corporations throughout the area are important partners.

Bootstrap Company

Bootstrap Company

Situated in a former paint factory in Dalston lies the wonderful Bootstrap Company, a coworking space housing over 300 social enterprises under one roof, that is covered in solar panels. They exploit event spaces and the lively Dalston Roof Park, a rooftop bar where they pour the local beers which are brewed in a 40 square meter shipping container in the back yard. Alongside A-list concerts, popular exhibitions and events flocked by the local hipster scene, they aim to boost entrepreneurship among the challenged youth of Hackney Borough. Bootstrap Company was established in 1977 and is thriving ever since.

Steve Clare © Locality

City Maker Steve Clare

As the former Deputy Chief Executive of Locality, Steve Clare has extensive knowledge on community enterprises and its changing socio-economic and political context. He has been involved in Locality’s knowledge transfer for many years and will continue to work in this field in the coming years. Steve is a brilliant thinker in the sphere of disruptive technological developments and the reinitiation of the commons theory.

Involved city makers
Steve Clare
Director of Cyta Consulting Ltd, former Deputy Chief Executive of Locality
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