Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Two ideas for Stoke's community assets

Why couldn't we spend a £40 million capital loan on current council-owned buildings across the city instead of just one? Here are two ideas for what we could do with them if we did, for debate:

Make every space a working web hub
The advantage of having so many buildings across the city in an era of broadband should be obvious. Forget the idea of single-use, purpose-built offices and make it possible for every council worker and councillor to book and log in to a computer in any council building. They could also use the spaces for meeting local people and partners or to support day service users and others with care needs. Charge organisations or projects that can afford it, otherwise allow free use - prioritising paid hiring and asking groups who are meeting for free to be flexible with the space they have. Make wifi available even if computers aren't possible. Put in more terminals if they can be supported - free for library uses and the unemployed, perhaps with subscriptions for those who want to spend longer on them. Train staff to train more volunteers to encourage even more people to get online and provide the often intensive one-to-one support this initially requires, or to run local informative web services the rest of the time. This would make a massive contribution to digital inclusion in the city, bringing cost-saving benefits to council and other government services. It could bring community members out of their houses and give them valuable experience and skills and the people who become really good at it can end up trainers, consultants or entrepreneurs.

Broadband also provides a wealth of further business possibilities: low-cost studios for local photographers or rooms with specialised hardware and software for organisations that occasionally need them but can't afford a full suite of their own, or for education. Secure storage facilities and meeting rooms could again be rented to organisations or provided to council workers to enable work across the city without always using cars. Huge numbers of us could then work within walking distance rather than having to commute, which would have a positive effect on rush hour and make Stoke an even more pleasant city to live in. If we need to go across the city for a meeting, then we can stay over there and work rather than having to dart back to a fixed office. A lot of these facilities will require funding as well, but this can be developed gradually with creative, small projects including, of course, energy generating projects.

Social enterprise coffee shops should be encouraged everywhere to provide grazing for the emerging generation of people who want to work virtually with wifi as well as older people who want to stay warm and get out to meet people. These shouldn't undercut local markets but should provide test-trading spaces that allow people to start out in small business, as has been done within some of the markets, and learn skills, as seen very successfully at the Burslem School of Art cafe. Again, as long as the basic infrastructure is provided, barriers to entry can be reduced and as people become more confident they can  move on and encourage more people to follow in their footsteps.

Broaden business planning and grow confidence 
The current CAT process puts enormous pressure on small community groups and committees to find all the answers by themselves. Just as with Tunstall pool, the likely answer is that there is no wealthy flock of pool-goers queuing up to maintain an expensive Victorian pool within the current recession. The pool was enormously popular but relied on subsidies and school visits. That isn't to say that the same group couldn't have been an effective steering group, growing local involvement and finding new income streams for the pool. The group's biggest problem was that as soon as the pool closed, its users dispersed and the life was drained from a passionate campaign and loyal groups.

You could have many groups working for different generations or different parts of a building and its gardens, spreading the workload and risk and drawing on wider population groups. The best example of this working is Burslem Park, where years of volunteer effort developed into a strong, viable Heritage Lottery funded project with equal input from the council and other partners.

The groups of volunteers who are attempting to take on big, risky community centres and run them sustainably deserve a confidence boost and a lot more love and respect. Councillors and officers should be shouting about their efforts from every rooftop and linking them up with every source of help they can think of. They're doing it for the benefit of others in their community, people who in many cases can't afford to go anywhere else. Many are themselves retired and would prefer to be users than building managers. Many more people will not - can not - get involved because they haven't got time or energy for what looks all too often like an impossible challenge. A few of these groups make it to become strong cooperatives or development organisations. Others dwindle and struggle on.

To hand over the entire risk of community buildings is unfair and, potentially, undemocratic unless you can get definite assurances that they will make it available for the whole community; borne more out of desperation to save money than any strategic thinking. Kneejerk hurtling towards closure leads to expensive, depressing, confidence-sapping monoliths sitting in some of the most high-profile parts of the city. Instead, basic coordination, facilitation and maintenance of buildings and land could be provided by the council while they are in their ownership - not forgetting that this cost and responsibility could be handed over if they are sold to viable organisations that have had the time and space to develop properly.

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