Then One Day: Unity on Union Street

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In this episode, we meet Hannah Sloggett and Wendy Hart, from Nudge Community Builders and learn how they're reviving Plymouth's neglected Union Street by nudging along one building at a time.

 

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Veronica Gordon

Hello and welcome back to “Then One Day”, the podcast that explores that special moment when strangers become a community to create positive change in their neighbourhood.

I’m Veronica Gordon.  Today, we’re meeting two extraordinary women who came up with a plan to turn a neglected high street in Plymouth, back into a bustling hub for the local community. But first, let’s roll back time a little, because Union Street hasn’t always been in need of saving. According to this BBC footage from 1979, in its heyday, Union Street was the place to go when you wanted to let your hair down.

 

BBC Clip 

Plymouth, which is the biggest city in a safe way, has one street which is as notorious as any street in Soho. That’s Union Street. Pubs, clubs, strip shows, and discos are all crammed into less than a quarter of a mile. And that’s where everybody goes for a night out…

 

Veronica Gordon

And this Union Street, the Union Street filled with weekend revelers and young people enjoying their carefree youth, is the street that our guest, Hannah Sloggett, first fell in love with.

 

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 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 antisocial behaviour – many people in the city would see it as a kind of no-go area.

 

Veronica Gordon

It was heartbreaking for Hannah, to see this once loved street become a problem area for Plymouth. So along with the local residents’ group, she decided something needed to be done.

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge 

We just kind of gradually sort of started to look at what we could do within the resources that we had to make a difference, and to bring some kind of fun and joy to the area as well. There’s lots of services in the area and lots of top-down approaches to making change happen. We just wanted to do something that sort of celebrated the area more. So, we bought some shopping basically, and we took it out onto a small street and started chatting to people. And then that sort of grew to a slightly larger event with some music and some family activities and things like that. And then at the end of that sort of mini street party, the police basically dared us that next year to close Union Street and that was 11 years ago now. When we closed the street, people were looking at all of the buildings. A lot of them have a lot of historic interest – there’s sort of interesting old theatres and cinemas and things like that. People just weren’t valuing them. And so, we just got more and more interested in what’s happening in the street, what’s holding it back, and started to kind of play around with what we could do with that.

 

Veronica Gordon

Before she knew it, that local residents’ group had evolved into a Community Benefit Society called Nudge Community Builders, which she now heads up with her right-hand woman, Wendy.

 

Wendy Hart, Nudge Community Builders 

Hi, I’m Wendy Hart. I’m co-director of Nudge alongside the amazing Hannah. And what do I do? I do kind of everything from putting my hands down a toilet if it’s blocked, to doing national talks, as well as being out and about on the street. I don’t know, every day is different, isn’t it? Every single day is different and looking after the four buildings, it’s kind of like, “Well, yeah, look where we’ve got to!”

 

Veronica Gordon 

Earlier, I referred to Nudge as a Community Benefit Society and you may be wondering what that is. In short, a CBS or Community Benefit Society is similar to any other cooperative apart from, when the business turns a profit, instead of that cash being distributed between its members, it is ploughed back into the business. This means that the core mission is always to put money back into the community. And for Nudge that means buying up neglected buildings and making them useful, then taking that profit and doing it all over again. Now four building sounds like an incredible achievement. Talk us through getting the first, second, third, and fourth.

 

Wendy Hart, Nudge Community Builders 

Our first building was where we started and if we hadn’t started with our first building, we wouldn’t have done two, three or four. So, the first building was crowdfunding when we were kind of still volunteering with full-time jobs, with bringing our kids up, and having loads of fun and just thinking, “Oh, yeah, we can do that”. And raising the money, going through loads of red tape, learning lots of things, and inviting people in. When we see photographs of when we invited people into Union Corner, it was proper ugly and not really ready to have people in. But that also taught us a lot, that actually it was safe-ish – we had a ramp over all the holes and bunting up all over the rubble, so you didn’t go on it. But inviting people in early gets people to see your story and imagine that they can, you know, get involved. And then, they can also see how much work everything is. So, we went from Union Corner as volunteers to then thinking about setting up Nudge. We then bought The Clipper.

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge 

And we bought that in 2017. It been a 24-hour pub and it was standing empty.

 

Veronica Gordon

How did you afford it?

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge 

So, we borrowed some money. We borrowed some money from the council – they had a fund to support new housing and we were going to put two new flats in above the ground floor. So, we borrowed some money from the council for a year and we borrowed some money from four investors. So, people that had kind of said, “Oh, if you two ever do anything, we’d be keen to kind of support you and things like that”. So, we borrowed that for the deposit. So, it was a huge leap in terms of the financial risks that we took. Yeah, Wendy reminded me the other day that we put our houses on the line, which is quite a scary thought now. But yeah, we were just like, “Right, we’re going to do this”.

 

Veronica Gordon

And weren’t you scared to lose your homes?

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge  

Yeah. And, you know, I’m the main earner for my family and gave up like, a good council job, you know, and all of that. It was a scary time. It was weird. It just kind of happened. It just suddenly snowballed that we were going to do this.

 

Veronica Gordon

Was there any point when you just thought, “We need to stop; the risk is too high”?

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge 

No, I don’t think so. I think we had a real low point didn’t we, like January time? After we’d bought it, we kind of came back and we were just like, “Oh, my goodness! Right, we have this building”. There was a lot to do in it and we didn’t know what to do. And we were like, there was a lot of kind of things that just come up that you have to kind of find a way around. So, with The Clipper, we were having to pay business rates as a 24-hour pub at a point where we weren’t making any money out of the building at all. And so, we were hemorrhaging money. And we knew that we would get it back, that it would be revalued, and, you know, it would show that it’s not a 24-hour pub anymore. But there were things like that, that were really stressful in those first few months.

 

Wendy Hart, Nudge Community Builders 

And then, building number three is the one that we’re sat in at the moment, which is called The Plot, which I think, to be honest, we were kind of losing the plot at the time, which is sort of why we said, “Let’s call it The Plot”. But it’s also that allotment theme that everyone kind of cross-fertilises and grows together. So, there’s lots of different businesses in here. And this one’s leased. And then we’ve gone on to part-buy – so 50/50 with a private investor – a huge building at the start of the street, which is called The Millennium. So, we just bagged that after three and a half years of negotiating though, but we just bagged it before Christmas, and then announced it to everyone which was really lovely.

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge 

It’s one of the only 1930s buildings in the city and I don’t think it’s valued enough for that. Architecturally, it’s really interesting -inside, it’s really interesting acoustically and the ceiling is just absolutely stunning. So, there’s so much to work with from that perspective. But also, personally, like loads of people in the city…I’ve got lots of stories. So, my mum and dad went on one of their first dates in that building when it was The Majestic, and I have like really fond memories of sneaking out at 16 down there in the nightclubs having lots of…yeah.

 

Veronica Gordon

The thing that really strikes me about Hannah and Wendy is how personally invested they are in this project. Maybe it was obvious that they would be but comparing their motivations to that of, say, regular property developers, they are worlds apart. I love that Hannah is saving a building, that not only did she used to dance in, but her parents too. This doesn’t sound like a safe and sensible property flip. It doesn’t really sound like a safe or sensible bet at all. I asked Wendy, how they plan to make it work financially.

 

Wendy Hart, Nudge Community Builders 

So, we’ve got kind of a business model. What we’re doing on the street is we are nudging buildings – we’re bringing buildings or unlocking buildings back into use that the market otherwise wouldn’t go near. And so, we have got kind of a business plan in recognition of that we will need grants to be able to make a building sustainable. We would aim for a building to be sustainable after five years. So, when we first start looking at a building, we kind of think about how much needs to go in in terms of investments, and then how it can start to kind of wash its face after those five years. We do apply for grants. We have traded income – so, we have, you know, the income from our flats; we have income from people being tenants in our new building; we have income from events that we do; and hire charges in all of those buildings. So, we’re always putting things together. We’d got to 22% of our turnover being traded income before COVID-19; we were hoping that we would have gone to 28-30% this year. It’s got knocked back a little bit from that. But all the time, it’s really trying to think how we can get a building up and running and then leave it so that it’s sort of future proof that it can look after itself so it wouldn’t fall over, and then we can go and move on to the next building.

 

Veronica Gordon 

And being financially stable is really important for Nudge because in their eyes, one of the things that their community needs most is consistency.

 

Wendy Hart, Nudge Community Builders 

As local residents, what we’d also been involved with was some lovely projects that people had rocked up with. They’ve got lottery funding to be able to do some lovely things in the neighbourhoods. But at night, they’d go in their cars and they’d go home, and when the project was finished, there’d be an echo, but there wouldn’t be those skills left in the community. So, Hannah and I have always, I think, retained that ability to stay a bit angry or a bit grumbly about things, in a really positive way though. But just hang on to…It’s not right, is it? Why isn’t that right? And then, just start to think about, if it could be different, what would that look like. And so, that’s also one of the things that we decided really early on in Nudge is that we wanted to spend as much of our money within a mile of where we are on Union Street so as we could really prioritise local people that may not have been able to, you know, apply for those grants to do something really lovely, but actually with some support as well, they could do something really great. And then, they might want to do more as well because it’s their local community and all that sort of, you know, loveliness of how then they can kind of go and support others. And then it all grows rather than people kind of parachuting in if you like.

 

Veronica Gordon 

Talking of inspiring local change, I decided to get in touch with one of the local people, who has set up a community business in one of Nudge’s buildings on Union Street, to hear about Hannah and Wendy’s impact firsthand.

 

Jabo Butera, DBI 

My name is Jabo, Jabo Butera, and I am the current managing director and co-founder of Diversity Business Incubator. We are a CIC, Community Interest Company, based in Stonehouse on Union Street and the aim is to encourage entrepreneurship. We encourage individuals to become self-employed or working for themselves. Our focal clientele, or people we focus on working mainly, is people from the black and Asian minority ethnicity. It’s not exclusive, but those are the primarily clientele we work with, who are encouraged to go into entrepreneurship. Union Street particularly is one of the main streets based in the Stonehouse area. It’s the most deprived area to start with – with the statistics you’ll find that Stonehouse is the most deprived area, but again, it’s the most diverse in terms of ethnicity by population in the whole of Plymouth. And, if we’re going to be inspiring them, we have to be in these wards; we have to be in these walls; we have to be around here to see what’s happening in making that change. So, that’s the reason why we choose to be here, but that’s why I live not far from here myself. Yes, I’ve seen that from the beginning – from the conception of it, I think – when they were doing the fundraising, campaigning talking to people. It’s the passion in the individuals who are leading it, Hannah and Wendy. They are very passionate about it; they are very passionate about seeing the change. They live in the area themselves; it’s not like it’s someone from outside who’s just implementing because they have a salary. No, this is their living area – their children go to school across; Hannah is a Governor of the school over there. So, they’re so passionate about it. And that’s what we all are buying into – we’re all passionate about seeing the change. So, we’re creating; we have to be creative around – that’s where we live – we have to be creative and bring the change. So, Nudge is one of the pioneer organisations who wants to see the change and they are at the forefront of it. It’s not too strict and too serious – we do parties; we do pom-poms wearing; all that’s just to get those who are living in this area to feel, “This is my patch”, and then they will look after it It’s everyone being involved at an early stage in playing a positive role for where you are. It’s not waiting until you are in a decision-making position or having millions to be able to say, “I want to start helping”.  No. With what you have, with a small player role, contributes to it. And then, you hear in today’s society going on about social enterprise or social impact. They are big words but, most of the time, what they mean is what are you doing in front of your house? That your neighbour will pass safely; that the children will laugh when they’re passing by instead of crying. The graffiti and everything – it’s not anyone else who’s coming to do the graffiti, it’s our own children. But how can we take in the beauty? It’s not about stopping them, saying “Don’t do the graffiti”. Because the one who’s going to come from outside, that’s what they’re going to say, “Don’t do graffiti”. But if it’s within your own elements, you can guide it. Let’s say, “Well, I like what you’re painting. How about you do a message of hope, a message of peace, instead of just scribbling frustration”. That’s the society of tomorrow.

 

Veronica Gordon

It’s great to hear how much of an impact Nudge is having, especially as it’s not always easy to gain the support of your community. Change can sometimes be a scary thing. So, I asked Wendy how they’d managed to get the community on board.

 

Wendy Hart, Nudge Community Builders 

From being on the street all this time, from doing the street party, that’s given us great strength. Lots of people look at Nudge and see that we started in 2017. And it is kind of astronomical, if we had just started in 2017. But we started, you know, from today, 11 years ago really, with those intense conversations with people. Everything’s built on those connections, and those discussions, and the bits where people say, “Things are a bit wrong”, or “It’s not great”, or “Look at how the street’s just been left to go to wreck and ruin”. Then that gives you… you open up another conversation with someone else, don’t you? And then, I don’t know, it’s just sort of growing from there, really. And people then have been able to imagine the change; they’ve been able to imagine something a bit different and then ask for a bit more. And then, we’re so lucky in terms of the networks that we’ve got across the city. When we first started Nudge, I thought we might have had to shoulder barge open a few doors. But if, we had done that, we’d have flown into the room; lots of doors were opened. So, it’s really great that you can make those connections, can’t you? That someone asked you to meet, you can connect it with something else, and then things can happen.

 

Veronica Gordon

So, on to you, what does it mean to be part of Nudge? How does it make you feel?

 

Hannah Sloggett, Nudge  

It’s been a massive journey. I think, it’s been amazing but also, it pretty much takes over your life, like your heart and your mind and stuff. So, we’ve had lots of sleepless nights at the same time. There’s just like absolutely bonkers moments where you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m part of making this amazing thing happen”, particularly when individuals suddenly say, “Oh, as a result of like being here or doing this, I’ve gone on to do something” and you realise the kind of impact that you’re having for local people.

 

Veronica Gordon

Wendy, what are your plans? What’s your vision for Nudge in the next five years?

 

Wendy Hart, Nudge Community Builders 

I don’t know. We’ve never stopped, have we? I think there’s a couple more buildings on the street that we really love that are really derelict and, you know, the rooves have fallen in behind the facade. I don’t know whether that’s being overly ambitious with The Millennium, but it would be great in five years’ time to have unlocked the tricky ownership because some of those are owned by a company, a shell company, and then it goes offshore and things like that. So, I think it would be really great to at least put those into some sort of vehicle that means that they’re in safer community ownership for the future. I can’t wait for the red carpet to come out for The Millennium and to be walking up in some silly, fancy high heels on opening night at The Millennium. I think that’d be really amazing. And my children that are now 16 and 14 are hoping it’s, you know, at least until they’re 18 so they can go on the guest list. And then also, yeah, connecting up with some people that have got all those lovely stories about The Millennium. It would be really great to see those local people that used to go in it and party also coming in over the next few years and having a great time there. Yeah, I think I think that’s it.

 

Veronica Gordon

Thank you, Wendy, Hannah, and Jabo. I love how Nudge is trying to make a big impact by only focusing their efforts on one small area. They’re not trying to change the whole of Plymouth, at least not by themselves. Instead, they’re setting a precedent with one progressive street and hoping others will follow in their footsteps. In a time when more and more historic high streets are at risk of disappearing, it’s heartwarming to hear of one that isn’t just being saved but is being adapted and revitalised to meet the new needs of its local community. Just before I sign off, I want to hand the mic over to Wendy, who has some tips on how you can make a real difference where you live.

 

Wendy Hart, Nudge Community Builders 

Yeah, I think have a go at something small to start off with. That’s definitely…we learned so much about doing Union Corner. So, I’d say, have a go. I’d say, don’t listen to anyone that says that you have to do this, this, this, this and this, and they give you a whole sort of linear plan of all the things you need to get ready to do. I think it’s really great that we didn’t have a business plan in place for the first six months – we kind of wanted to find our way with Nudge. And then, the third thing, I don’t know, just keep going to the pub and recharging yourself, and just saying that you can do it and really believe in that you can, because you really can.

 

Veronica Gordon

If you’ve been inspired by anything you’ve heard in today’s episode, head to www.powertochange org.uk for more information. And make sure you join us in two weeks’ time for our bonus episode, where the Food and Education Enterprise’s project manager will be giving us top tips on how to use food to bring your community together. Thanks to Power to Change who brought you this podcast and to Pixiu for producing. I’m Veronica Gordon. See you in two weeks.