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A Future with Heart…?

February 22, 2011

Yesterday I went to the official opening of HEART – Headingley Enterprise and Arts Centre, an old Primary School, in a vibrant Leeds suburb which has been converted to a high standard by the Headingley Development Trust to provide:

  • 13 meeting rooms of various shapes and sizes
  • Exhibition space which local artists can use to hang their work
  • The Pulse Enterprise Space – shared workspace available on a membership basis
  • A Cafe, run by an independent operator, with 45 indoor covers and outside, off street, seating for 30 more

With, what seems to the untrained eye, excellent green credentials (solar panels, photovoltaic cells, grey water collection etc) the HEART Centre is a great new facility.  And with an eye to keeping costs down, using teams of volunteers wherever possible to run the building (very ‘big society’) and keeping debt as low as possible, the centre, with a lot of hard work, may just pay its way commercially and fulfil its vision – to create a vibrant and welcoming space for a wide range of people to meet, mix, work and play.

Similar in look and feel to both Hillside and Shine, I think there are several reasons why HEART has a chance of succeeding in the pursuit of its vision.

Firstly it is situated in a relatively prosperous part of the city, there are plenty of bright, young, and not so young things, with Mac Books, notebooks and iPads running small businesses who will almost immediately recognise the value of the Pulse Enterprise Space and find the £25 per month entry point both affordable and cost-effective.

It enjoys a wonderful location, with excellent footfall, and provides great spaces which fit well with the expectations and aspirations of many local people.

It really has been a carefully researched labour of love – the culmination of a 5 year project, led by local people, to keep the school in community use.

But perhaps most importantly I think it stands a chance of success because it is the flagship project of an established Development Trust led by local people who generally live in, and share insights into, the community that they exist to serve.  The Trust has developed over several years and those involved have already more than cut their teeth on a number of other projects including the Headingley Farmers Market, a Housing Project, a Community Orchard and even a Pig and Fowl Coop.  So the building is in the hands of a well established group of people committed to Headingley who have shared experiences over a number of years that have developed a real competence in their work.

Some Challenges to Be Met

Doing what pays – rather than doing what is wanted.  On my tour of the centre I was told about a significant demand from local people to have somewhere to practice their art, painting, drawing and so on – a community studio of some type.    However the centre was unable to respond to this demand because it is not commercially viable.  Local people want to develop their passion and skill and come together communally but this desire, at the moment at least cannot be catered for.  Perhaps in future surpluses from commercial activities could be used to cross subsidise such a resource?

We have to understand that financial viability follows on from the development of real craft.  It is not its pre-cursor.  If we could build a community of artists doing outstanding work then the revenues might start to flow.  Building skills and relationships lies at the heart of effective community development.  If we simply provide a home for those who are already economically viable perhaps we are missing a trick?

Displacement – There is a danger that money that gets pulled into the HEART Centre may be money that is pulled away from other local businesses and community groups offering similar services.   Of course competition is a good thing, as long as the playing fields are kept level between the private sector and community groups.  But if community groups are able to leverage volunteers, grants and subsidises not available to the private sector to compete with them then the results will not always be what we might hope.

Further Driving Inequality in the City? – Headingley, although not without the problems that come from a high population density including lots of students and ‘young professionals’, is not a deprived area.  Indeed it is the only part of the ‘Leeds Rim’ not to be amongst the most deprived wards in the country.   So we have a ‘successful community’ learning how to make itself more successful.  Which is to be applauded.

But can we do more to ensure that gaps between the rich and the poor do not further open up in the city?  How do we work successfully in more deprived areas to ensure that they too share in successful economic and social development.  I am not sure that similar buildings in more deprived parts of the city will have the same chance of really making a difference.

Keeping the Doors Open and On Mission

Buildings, especially ones that are open long hours, cost a lot of money.  Centre managers, caretakers, security, insurances, rates, utility bills and servicing debts all add to the overheads.  It is easy for the imperative to generate income to over-ride the social mission of such spaces.  Bills have to be paid.  But sometimes the desire to pay the bills takes the building away from what it was intended to be.  So, instead of being a place for the local community more of it is made available to affluent outsiders.

Hopeful…

But I am hopeful for HEART.  I think it has an excellent chance of doing great work in Headingley.  The host development trust seems well run.  It is embedded in the local community.  It will be hard work, and I suspect not without real scares along the way.  But I have a suspicion that HEART and the Headingley Development Trust will be a part of the Leeds infrastructure for some time to come.  It may be hard to make the managed workspace/meeting room combination work in more deprived areas of the city – but with a bit of tweaking it may be just right for Headingley.

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3 Comments
  1. Gerry Andrews permalink

    This is an excellent example of enterprise and of a community working creatively to make something work. But as you say Mike, this might be right for Headingley, but not for somewhere where the demographics/economics are different.
    The difficulty of balancing the need to make a Centre pay its way as opposed to being there for the good of the community is a critical issue. This is perhaps the central difference between the more affluent nad more deprived communities.

  2. Thanks for this review – you absolutely nail the strengths and the potential weaknesses of our project, which we are very much aware of. In particular, we have made a point of saying to all those who ask (particularly people in power) that this is NOT and was not intended to be a blueprint for all communities nor is it a gesture towards the unravelling of local services provided by local authorities.

    What it is is a response to a need that we felt in Headingley – to put the heart back into our community. So far so good!

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