Contrasts of scale and changing the world one step at a time

Devonshire Arcade Penrith

I have some friends from the continent who talk of the British island mentality.  Next Monday’s House of Commons debate on a European Referendum is a sighted as an magnification of this.  To a lot of people we’re seen as just a small Island off the coast of Europe. The North West of England is at the far side of this small remote island.  Geographically just a little patch of land bordered by a small mountain range and an obscure piece of water called the Irish Sea. Little England.

Scale is a relative thing.  It is 145 miles from Carlisle to Crewe. Just under seven million people live here. The contrasting landscape ranges from the Cheshire planes through industrial Manchester to the Lake District and Scarfell Pike, England’s highest peak, (still rather puny by European standards).

We’re based in Blackburn.  Relatively central in the region and near to the M6.  A sensible place to be if you’re covering the North West.

Yesterday afternoon, wearing a somewhereto_ hat, I set off for a meeting in Penrith in Cumbria.  It was a stunning clear bright day.  As I drove past Lancaster I got a tantalising view of the Cumbrian mountains shining in the sun.

Penrith is 75 miles and one and a half hours up the M6.  A really handsome town on the edge of the lake district with a Welsh name, reflecting its ancient Celtic heritage. Penrith’s population is about 15,000, roughly 2% of that of the North West. Pretty soon it will be home to three large supermarkets.

I met up with Dougald Hine and Mitchell Jacobs from Space Makers, a Brixton based agency finding local,creative and non investment heavy ways to bring vibrancy back to spaces, at the George Hotel in the centre.  We had tea and crumpets next to a roaring fire.

Space Makers sprung from an article Dougald wrote in 2009 entitled. ‘Let’s recycle Woolworths’ and it’s first significant project was to bring Brixton Village, a rather sad and underused 1930’s indoor market space back to live.  It seemed that the only option was to throw millions of pounds and tonnes of glass and steel at it in the hope of attracting an anchor multiple retailer like M&S. The locals revolted. That is not what they wanted. Brixton Village – or Granville Arcade, as it is still known locally – mattered to local people. The Council and the Property company were left with a problem, a site where a substantial number of shops were sitting empty, without enough footfall for new businesses to get off the ground, a deteriorating building and hardly any rent being paid.  Throwing big money at the problem wasn’t what the people wanted.

Dougald persuaded the owners to give him a free hand and a small fee for 12 months.  With no rent or prospect of bringing in the bulldozers, the management company had nothing to lose.   At this point, Dougald teamed up with Mitchell.  They invited anyone with an idea to propose what they wanted to do with a shop, rent-free, for up to three months. They got over 90 applications, from which came a rolling programme of pop-up shops and new independent local businesses. They also hosted events within the market, making space available to performers and local organisations, with a philosophy of never saying ‘NO’ to an idea.  They combined this with inviting bands and groups to use the space to perform on Saturdays.  In short, Brixton Village is now fully let.  The owners are getting rent and haven’t had to spend millions redeveloping the site.  It is now a destination. I’ve been. It’s vibrant, busy, interesting, entertaining.  A place well worth visiting and enjoying.  The scale of investment was minuscule for a massive return – financial and social.

Will this work in Penrith? The handsome market town in Cumbria couldn’t be more of a contrast to Brixton. There is still an arcade of half empty shops.  There is still a community interested and wanting things to happen.  There is still the commitment and Dougald and Mitchell to make it happen.  ‘No’ is still not an option.
Hopefully, through somewhereto_ we can help.  somewhereto_ helps 16 – 25 year olds find the spaces they need to do the creative cultural and sporting things that they’re passionate about doing.  A lot of the people who made Brixton work were in this age bracket.  Dougald has already been inspired by a 19 year old entrepreneur in Penrith.  Some of the spaces in Penrith will be going up onto soon, seeking ideas.

Penrith is a small town on a small island off the coast of Europe.  This is a small project with small amounts of money involved. We live in a world where the received wisdom is that ‘investing’ is the only answer.  That unless there are large amounts of money involved – it’s not worth doing and that only big, ‘knock it down’ gestures are the way to improve things.  There is a new movement seeking new ideas.  They’re camping outside St Paul’s and they’re working in Penrith.  Perhaps they have the answer.  It’s about creativity, lateral thinking, small rather than big gestures.  The establishment doesn’t understand it. The property management companies in Brixton and Penrith don’t understand it but, thankfully are enlightened enough to know that it works. “They think it’s because we’re good at Facebook” comments Dougald.