On 23rd March 2020, the Prime Minister told us: “you must stay at home”. In my case, that home turned out to be somewhere I had visited only once in my life and just a couple of weeks earlier.
The place in question was Harlow in Essex. I had met Corinne online on the 1st February, and on the strength of those six weeks, I decided to enter lockdown there with her and her children.
At that point I knew very little about Harlow, despite its proximity to London, the city where I have lived most of my life. I had heard it was the home of the ‘white van man’, one of those smarty-pants turns of phrase coined in the 90s to patronise a whole swathe of the electorate. I also knew the county as the home of ‘the Essex girl’ which similarly wrote off the other half of the population.
From some of the eyebrows that were raised by friends and colleagues at the news that I was living in Harlow, it felt like a ‘left behind’ place, at least in their minds. I experienced at first-hand evidence of what John Harris described in the Guardian as the deeply condescending nature of the term “as if people in more affluent cities and suburbs are gliding into the future, while many towns were clinging to a sepia-tinted vision of a mislaid Albion”.
In my five plus years at Power to Change, my privileged metropolitan world view has been overturned time and time again by the places I have been lucky to get to know better, the length and breadth of England, places often thought of as ‘left behind’ that I would never have visited otherwise, like Harlow. In each of them I have witnessed first-hand how community businesses are transforming their neighbourhoods for the better. They may be simply a group of people taking an enterprising solution to tackle the issues of where they live but they can have an effect out of proportion to their size.
I have always immersed myself in the places I have lived and worked in. Before this role, I had trekked the length and breadth of the country for Feather Down Farms, the glamping pioneer I brought over from Holland, learning how the rural economy ticked. I saw how enterprising farmers could revive the places where they lived. Just by implanting half a dozen fancy tents on their land which pulled in middle-class urban families for weekend breaks, that would be sufficient traffic and income to bring back to life the shops and pubs in their neighbouring villages.
With Power to Change, it may have been a different landscape but I could see how they changed for the better as income was generated and retained in the local economy. Places like Rock House in the White Rock district in the heart of Hastings, the most deprived town in the south east, where the pressures of the onrushing tide of gentrification were being met by locals collaborating to preserve working and living spaces for the people already there. Like Stonehouse in Plymouth, whose main thoroughfare Union Street went from dereliction and poverty to productivity and pride as community businesses took on run-down buildings.
Two other neighbourhoods, also from our Empowering Places programme, that stuck in the memory were Braunstone in Leicester and Nunsthorpe in Grimsby, where Power to Change supports anchor organisations like b-inspired and Centre4. These districts also bear those markers that increasingly go hand-in-hand now, high deprivation and high infection rates for Covid-19.
Wonderful Bristol was also a place I returned to, again to hear first-hand from community businesses, saving spaces in every corner of the city of every variety from shipping containers, to housing estates and pubs, even down to a cemetery and ferry boats.
Finally Liverpool, where stories of people taking matters into their own hands criss-cross the city. From SAFE in Bootle to the north, the first place I visited with Power to Change and shot a video there about a vision for just about the most deprived place in the country, with a derelict pub and a canal choked with detritus, transforming itself into an Italian-style piazza in the middle of a 21st century model village. To Anfield where a community-run bakery and laundrette were book-ending an old-fashioned local high street and regenerating the terraces in between. And Toxteth, where locals had fought to preserve their streets from the wrecking ball and to grow and sell honest wholesome food to those in food poverty around them, both community businesses being recognised with major national awards in the process.
I was fortunate enough to visit nearly all these places in 2020 before drawbridges were pulled up and I will visit them again post-Power to Change. And I’ll be keeping a foot in the community business camp post Power to Change as I did before, locally in south London, as a volunteer at Brixton Windmill, as I was at Sutton Community Farm from 2014 onwards.
So thank you for teaching me so much, the community businesses of Hastings, Plymouth, Leicester, Grimsby, Bristol, Liverpool and countless other places. And thank you for your inspiration Jess (Rock House in Hastings), Hannah and Wendy (Nudge in Plymouth), Jo (Wellspring Settlement in Bristol), Angie (b-inspired in Leicester), Paul (Centre4 in Grimsby), Brian (SAFE in Bootle), Sally-Anne, Grace and Rachael (Homebaked and Kitty’s in Anfield), Erika, Ronnie and Eleanor (Granby Four Streets in Toxteth), Becky and Clare (Squash also in Toxteth) , Vidhya and all the colleagues I worked with. I have loved every minute of it!