The Community Matters annual conference last weekend gave Drew Mackie and I a chance to test out a new workshop game that we hope will help local groups plan take over and run community buildings – or improve the ones they have.
This is particularly challenging when councils are disposing of property in order to reduce costs, when local groups face cuts in funding – yet the demand for community services is increasing. Our workshop produced lots of conversations about the realities of people powered change. We started talking about buildings, staff, finance … and ended up focussing on community and collaboration.
There’s lots of excellent guidance and inspiring stories of groups creating very impressive spaces, both urban and rural: see for example the work of the Asset Transfer Unit, the examples at The Place Station, and the Big Lottery Fund Village SOS initiative.
For the human and social stories of community spacemaking see the work of Tessy Britton and friends at Social Spaces, and the examples they are gathering. I’m particularly looking forward to the launch of their Community Kitchen: creative conversations instead of committees, with “an asset-based focus rather than a problem solving or deficit-focused one”.
However I’m always struck by the gap between the books, websites and expertise of professional advisors in any area, and what people can actually call to mind when faced with a particular challenge. As Richard Edwards said in this interview, you can’t get practical expertise from a book or website – you need to start doing something.
The idea of the game was to provide a simulation – getting people talking about the practicalities in a way that might provide a jump into practical exploration or research.
Drew did most of the work, after an excellent briefing from Community Matters chief executive David Tyler, and conference organiser Liz Cleverly. Thanks also to Annemarie Naylor from the Asset Transfer Unit for showing us project examples that might form the basis for the fictitious examples we needed. Here’s a map of Slapham town centre and Drew’s description of its community spaces.
The description and projects
In central Slapham there are a number of community based organisations that rent or own buildings. These premises range from reasonably modern offices to community halls in need of renovation.
The Council also owns and runs properties in the area and is keen to divest itself of the responsibility of staffing and maintaining the buildings.
In general, Slapham’s community organisations don’t collaborate with each other. Decades of competitive bidding for grants that lost a maximum of three years have created a culture of competition rather than cooperation.
Many of these groups are partially supported thought the Council, either through direct funding or through the use of Council premises or with the support of Council staff. The national climate now requires the Council to make cuts and these are bound to affect this support in all it’s forms. The game follows the fortunes of six local organisations:
Slapham Young People’s Centre – 3
Situated in Courtney Square,, this is a longstanding group composed of local volunteers and a youth organiser. The group runs after school sessions and a drop in cafe. Occasionally they run trips to outdoor centres in Wales and Scotland. Funding has come mainly from grants from the Council and specific project funding. There has recently been some trouble over drug use at the cafe and this has soured relations with the police. The centre wishes to expand its work through the recruitment of youth and arts workers together with training for volunteers.
The Brewhouse – 4
The Brewhouse is currently owned by Slapham Council, but in conjunction with Space Race and other stakeholders, a new organisation, the Brewhouse Trust, is being formed. This organisation will seek to expand the uses of the current building and press ahead with a new project to expand the facility and incorporate new activities. There are numerous opportunities for local people to get involved.
Marshall Street Community Museum – 2
This local museum is housed in a historic building in Marshall Street, not far from Courtney Square. It houses a collection of mainly craft and early industrial exhibits from the town’s history and is run by a longstanding museum trust and staffed by increasingly aged volunteers. The building is in great need of renovation and visitor numbers are dropping.
Mavis Park Community Sports Club – C2
Mavis Park is an an area of low quality sports pitches (football etc) surrounding a rather rundown sports and community centre owned and operated by the Council. The Club has been formed by the community to resist the closure of the Centre which runs at a considerable loss.
Tarley Somali Association – 5
The Association was formed 5 years ago to provide support for the Somali community in Slapham which is mainly based in Tarley. Legal, translation, financial and other advice is provided by volunteers and Council staff through temporary offices in Marshall Street. There are plans to move into a larger Council owned building in Patrick Street (C3) but this will require finding other groups or services to share the space. The Council will also be keen to transfer responsibility for the building to a properly constituted body that is larger than the Somali Association.
Blaybeck Women’s Refuge – 6
Operating from premises fronting the river, the refuge has a long history of supporting women suffering domestic abuse, and providing secure temporary accommodation. Staffed by volunteers but working closely with the police, social work and health agencies the refuge provides a valuable local service. The building is however becoming more difficult to maintain and has some structural problems associated with its location on the river frontage. The accommodation has become substandard.
Space Race – 1
This group is concerned to find a productive social use for empty properties and land. It considers these to disfigure the town and to sap local moral. Initially the Council had little interest, but this is changing as the the Council seeks to get rid of property. The group acts as a catalyst to encourage local groups to take up unused assets. It has a small office in Stobben.
Before we started, I did a short interview with Drew on how we hoped the session would run. It was very much an experiment: although we had run lots of game workshops before, this one was prepared specially for the conference and we hadn’t been able to trial it beforehand.
In essence, during the game we asked people to split into groups, choose one of the projects, and then use a set of cards to plan development. The group had some starter cards covering accommodation, costs and staffing, and had to decide what to add while juggling costs. Slapham council was played by Tim Judge, from Community Matters, treading a fine line between sympathetic support and a brief to cut costs.
Although the initial focus was on managing and developing building, we had suggested that groups look at the scope for collaboration. For example, could they share premises, or strike up some trading opportunities?
Soon the room was buzzing with ideas and negotiation. The Women’s Refuge presented a particularly tough challenge: they liked their building and its out-of-the-way location near the river, but couldn’t stay as they were because of occasional flooding. The council wouldn’t pay for flood defences, and they couldn’t see another location that would work for them. Could they get support for a pitch to the Big Lottery Fund?
After the session had ended I prevailed on some of those taking part to review their experience, as you can see here.
There was general agreement that the session yielded some real world insights – in particular that it was important to know much more at the start about the assets and organisations in the area. Without this it was difficult to look for opportunities for collaboration.
The council was under pressure – caught between a desire to continue to support the local groups, but constrained by their deficit-reduction policies.
Drew and I agreed with the players that the game needed to be simplified: as Drew explained, the first run is always a bit complicated, but you don’t know what to change until you try it out.
Overall the conclusion was that the game provided a level playing field on which people could try ideas, and it could be a good method to bring together different interests in an area within a fun and creative framework. We hope to find support for developing the game further – so if you are interested, do please drop a comment, or get in touch here.