RESILIENT COMMUNITIES: LEARNING JOURNEY

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A couple of summers ago I spent a few weeks in Hastings and very nearly moved there so it was great to have the opportunity to go back to hear about how much has happened over the last few years.

Resilient Communities: A Learning Journey two day residential 

On the first evening thanks to UnLtd we met fellow participants for pizza at La Rustico. This was a lovely way to start the event. The next day we made our way to Rock House. Rock House was set up in 1969 but was largely derelict when White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures (WRNV) took it on. There were a few tenants but it was boarded up and in need of some serious maintenance. Following 13 years of sustained community engagement and an immense amount of work Rock House now hosts 43 businesses (charities & micro enterprises), 78 work space tenants and 10 residential tenants. 

Rock House is an ambitious mixed-use project that breathes new life into a previously underused building situated in the White Rock area of Hastings town centre. It’s nine floors are home to living space, work space and a community hub. Those who live and work here must meet certain criteria of needenthusiasm and contribution to the building and the wider community.

WRNV is a joint venture between three social enterprise organisations. These are Meanwhile Space CICJericho Road Solutions and Power to Change. These organisations provide leadership, ownership, management, investment and development roles. The aim is to create transformation at neighbourhood level and to experiment with new ways people can live and work.

All prospective tenants need to demonstrate their willingness to be part of the community and contribute. The careful selection process that focuses on creating a new social norm. At Rock House it is normal to know your neighbours. Tenants contribute towards the physical upkeep of the building and there is an expectation for mutual contribution. It was interesting to hear how at first they considered it a risk to select tenants. They were keen to avoid creating a homogeneous community. Instead they wanted to be truly reflective of the Hastings community and to have a mix of people from different backgrounds. It is obviously working. There is a low turnover rate and tenants in the building get on well. A clear vision unites everyone to be part of something bigger than themselves. 

Community engagement

It is evident how critical mobilising the community  has been to the success of the ambition. During open meetings three questions were asked :_

Is gentrification happening in Hastings? YES

If it is happening is it a problem? YES

If it is, is there anything that can be done about it? MAYBE

The resounding responses was enough to spark a concerted effort to bring properties back into community ownership and cap the rent forever. Instead of profits lining the pockets of landlords rents rise with inflation and any profits are re-invested.  An Investors Collective was set up to attract social investors. 

We heard about the importance of bringing life to a building/space straight away even if it’s not ‘ready’. Build a shell, demonstrate and experiement with how the community could use the space. It can start simple such as setting up a tea space. The most important thing we were reminded is to start! One thing that really struck me about the visit was the holistic whole systems approach to build an ecosystem. No project/ organisation operates in isolation which is an incredible achievement.  

The whole neighbourhood enterprise operates within a 150 metre radius that has a strong heritage within the city. 62% is private rented. The need to create affordable housing and opportunities for work, community and creativity are vital. When asked what are the tools that you need to achieve the vision, the organisations and partnerships become the tools. Bringing buildings back to life requires immense action. Jess Steele (Jericho Road) highlighted the need for the gap between speculative development; dereliction and gentrification and the importance of negotiating for those spaces before they are lost forever. 

The Observer Building 

It is a long process to build expertise and cultures but it is evident this is a never ending vision. Values are ultra inclusion and ultra creative. The drive and ambition is unrelenting.  The profits from increasing the value of Rock House have been used to buy the Observer Building which has stood empty for 30 years. It cannot be underestimated what an achievement this is. 

      

Organisation Workshop (OW) 

One of only two projects in the whole of the UK, Organisation Workshop (OW) is a chat based learning event where participants master new organisational as well as social knowledge and skills through a learning by doing approach. The Organisation Worksop is a highly engaging, experiential exercise based on decades of research and observation of the systemic nature of people in organisations. Over 70 referrals came through the Hastings job centre with sign ups having limited information of exactly what was involved. This was all designed as an intentional part of the workshop as people learn to work together, setting their own guidelines and objectives. Health and Safety is often used as a barrier to not using the OW model. The Observer Building OW required to have a H&S induction before any tool was used. Participants are required to join the OW for 4 weeks full time. They work together to create organisation. Means of production were put in place such as hard hats and PPE equipment so this was not a barrier for people getting involved. 46% of completers were female. 

                  

For lunch we visited the Cake Room. I had an interesting conversation over lunch and heard that while people moving from London and elsewhere to Hastings has driven prices up there are some benefits. People have also brought investment. As newcomers in town they have recognised gaps where independent businesses bring a new lease of life. The arrival of a green grocers means that money stays local, rather than going out of Hastings. 

                   

I came back to Brighton energised and thinking about how we can work to create a more holistic whole systems approach. SEASALT Housing co-operative is a pilot, the first student led housing co-operative in the South East. In the future there could be multiple student housing co-operatives, mixed use co working and art spaces. It also got me thinking about how we join up with current Brighton and Hove Community Led Housing projects to create a truly visionary city. While the market is ultimately more challenging in Brighton we need to dream big to realise a different way of living.