Bonus episode: How to buy community buildings

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In our latest mini-episode, Nudge's Hannah Sloggett is back to give us some insider tips on how to buy community assets and give them a new lease of life.

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Veronica Gordon

Welcome to this bonus episode of “Then One Day”. In these podcasts, we share tips and advice from community business leaders that we hope will be useful to you if you run a similar project or if you’re looking to start one.

Today, we’re going to be hearing from Hannah Sloggett, one of the founding members of Nudge Community Builders based in Plymouth. If you’ve been following the podcasts, you may recognise her from one of our previous episodes, which was dedicated to Nudge’s fantastic work transforming the aptly named Union Street, one building at a time. Here’s a little reminder.

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge 

Well, I first got to know Union Street when I went out dancing. Because it was like, it used to be the sort of place with all the nightclubs and things like that.

 

Veronica Gordon

But as the years went by, Union Street’s shine started to wear off. And by the early 2000s, its reputation as a party destination was well and truly a thing of the past.

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge 

It’s the main street that cuts through our neighbourhood. It’s about a big A-road that leads to the city centre, and 25% of the land is standing empty. And it’s associated with sort of anti-social behaviour; many people in the city would see it as a kind of no-go area.

 

Veronica Gordon 

I asked Hannah back today, because rescuing local buildings, and community assets that are falling into disrepair is a common thing for community businesses across the country. But it’s also really tricky. So, I thought it might be useful to hear some tips from a pro on how a community can actually go about buying these landmarks. And Hannah has bought not one, not two, but four buildings since setting up Nudge in 2017. So, she knows a thing or two.

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge 

Tip number one is first to start with the research and the local knowledge. I guess the first thing is to work out who owns it and why it’s standing empty. I think there’s a lot you can learn about why it’s standing empty and really stare that in the face. So, is it that ownership? Is it the market? Is it the previous uses? Do you know what I mean? What is holding that building back? So, I think you really need to understand that. And I think as a community organisation, you can understand that better than just go into the land registry, which is what most people just, you know, go and find out who owns it. You want to get as much sort of local intelligence about that ownership as well. Is the person local? Is the family local? All of that sort of thing. So that starts to give you a really strong basis to understand what you might be walking into and how tricky that might be.

My second one would be around being brave. And recognising that as a community organisation, you’ll look at how to bring a building back into use in a completely different way than a developer will. So, as soon as you start interacting with architects or with people in the construction industry and things like that, they’ll have a completely different take on what you’re taking on the new role as a community. In our experience, it doesn’t necessarily translate into how a community brings a building back into use because you bring a whole load of resources that aren’t normally included in like a viability report and things like that. So, all of those local connections, all the local skills, all of the kind of quirky kind of local knowledge and stuff that you will bring to a project, doesn’t get included when people look at it formally like that. So, you know, in our experience, we’ve been really underestimated with that. And that’s really undervalued as well. So, you start to…it’s too easy to defer and go, “Oh well, this person has done all these developments and they know what they’re talking about”. Whereas actually, as a community organisation, you’re unique and you will do your building in a unique way

Tip number three is where you can get support. There’s a whole mixture, I think. There’s lots of national organisations, so people like, you know, Locality, Plunkett, Power to Change – organisations that sort of have really specialised in supporting community organisations to bring buildings back into use. You can also get support locally as well, kind of getting in touch with your council and your local voluntary community sector if you’ve not worked with them before, to see what skills you have on your doorstep. And then there’s usually support with other sort of businesses. So, it’s worth kind of getting in touch with people that might be working along that street. You know, who else is running a business along that street. But also, you know, local builders and things like that. So, starting to work your connections, and then you get your local network of support as well.

Tip number four – I think the other thing is just sort of underestimating the time that things take. It is complicated and it is hard, and it will take a lot of time and energy. So, it’s how you kind of make sure that you get looked after, I think. I think that’s the hardest thing, and not to get overwhelmed by all of the advice and the different processes. Because all of those hurdles, if you look at them all at the beginning, it can stop you. So, you can think this is way, way too risky. Whereas actually, if you just look at the hurdles that you need to get over, over the next couple of months, you can make those achievable. It’s finding ways to kind of break that down and you will. You’ll get stronger and stronger so that by the time those bigger hurdles come up, you’ll just be like, “Oh yeah. Here we go again. This is another kind of tough period”. So, I think, yeah, there’s something about kind of pace, and just believing that each time. And the thing that we ask ourselves all the time is like, what’s the worst-case scenario? Worst case scenario, you put the building back on the market. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, all the time, just really asking yourself, like, what is the worst that can happen. Because quite often, it’s not that bad.

So, number five – share the process. So, what people have really loved is this sense that it’s a community doing things for ourselves. And so, it’s what other opportunities for people to join in with that. At Union Corner, we added little hearts each time we kind of got to a new part of our crowdfunding thing. It’s kind of little ways for people to be able to contribute. People made the lampshades and so, although we didn’t have the lights on, we had like, beautiful lampshades. And so, it’s kind of like a little reason like that, like, give you a boost as well. Do you know what I mean? You’re like, “Oh yeah, we might have a building that’s falling down, but like, look at this lovely thing that we’ve got here”. But those are the things that then create a sense of belonging, because people come in and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I made a little bit of that”, or “I added to this”, and stuff like that. So, I think those processes are really important.

Tip number six – there is no formal way of doing these things. Because honestly, when you ask for external advice, particularly from people that haven’t done it themselves, they’ll go, oh first, you need to write a business plan; and you need a viability report; and you needed this; and you needed that; and you need to check for land contamination and everything. And it’s like, those reports cost, you know, 1000s and 1000s of pounds. And of course, you have to manage your risks, and you have to operate safely and carefully. But I think communities really do bring a different way of doing those things. And I don’t think that that approach works in the way that it would for a developer that’s maybe trying to extract as much wealth out of a development, or as much income as they can out of a development. And so, I wish that someone had said that to us at the beginning and that that was ok, and that we didn’t have to kind of just sort of like, find a way of making ourselves feel ok about that.

 

Veronica Gordon

It’s evident that bringing life back into disused buildings is essential in bringing life back into communities. Somehow, hearing Hannah talk so calmly about buying up community property, makes it feel well achievable. However, if you feel like you need some extra help or advice, head over to www.powertochange.org.uk for more information and resources.

Thanks to Power to Change who brought you this podcast and to Pixiu for producing. We’ll be back in two weeks’ time but until then, from me Veronica Gordon, thanks for listening.