Divine inspiration

From crumbling wreck to a thriving community hub – Matthew Harrison tells the story of Levenshulme United Reformed Church

When the Inspire Centre, a pioneering development in Levenshulme, south Manchester, won the award for best regeneration project from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, it was truly testament to the unflinching support and hard work of the local community in helping to transform this dilapidated, yet magical, 116-year old church into a vibrant focal point for the whole neighbourhood.

The fact that this development is now at the heart of a vibrant community has been an inspiration for everyone involved and now the centre is up and running, it’s not only used as a place of worship – where the congregation has trebled since opening in October 2010 – but is a hotbed for new businesses, community groups, conferences and exhibitions, and houses a bustling community café.

As with many developments of this nature, it was important that we incorporated living accommodation in an area where there was a severe shortage of decent, affordable housing. A total of 14 one and two-bedroomed apartments were let to local people from the city council’s waiting list.

It’s undoubtedly been a real labour of love. Reaching this point in the whole process has been uplifting for all involved but by no means easy. Five years ago, Levenshulme United Reformed Church was crumbling in front of the eyes of its community. Its congregation was dwindling and a Sunday school extension was beyond repair.

This level of dilapidation, and the fear of losing such an iconic building in the area, prompted the church community to come up with new and innovative ways of sharing this historic building to safeguard its future and revive its diminishing congregation.

Despite the building’s ramshackle condition, it was deemed to be structurally sound and suitable for conversion so an Inspire Steering Group was established to consult with stakeholders and the community to take the project forward.

After a business case was devised by the church, Bubble Enterprises, Young Adult Advice & Support Project (Yasp), Manchester Council and local radio station All FM, Great Places stepped in to lead the redevelopment, facilitating community consultation, securing planning permission, purchasing the church and neighbouring land, and applying for a road closure order (for a small street behind the development that became a garden and parking area).

But the problems started to arise when the question of funding came hurtling towards us. We needed £3m to complete the redevelopment, and despite Great Places securing £2m from the Homes and Communities Agency, the council and its own reserves to support the development of apartments for rent, we still fell short.

That’s when we felt the tangible passion of this community towards the project. Community-led innovative and energetic fundraising campaigns started springing into action. Even the church organ was sold on eBay to raise funds.

A share-scheme, which enabled local people to buy shares at £5 each and have a say in how the centre was run, also galvanised the community with 100 people and organisations buying shares worth £5,000.

A grant of almost £500,000 from the Big Lottery Fund was a real landmark in the campaign but it was perhaps the £52,000 donated by a local mosque that highlighted the uniqueness of this development with its wider-community buy-in.

It really is a prime example of Big Society in action. People taking more responsibility for their communities, volunteering in a locally driven development and connecting with people they might not otherwise deal with in an everyday capacity.

Handling the design of the development also presented its own challenges. It was important that we were sensitive to the history of the building, keeping as many of the original features as possible including the heritage windows, sandblasting the spire and exterior to its original glory, and recycling where appropriate. Architects TADW designed a contemporary extension reusing stone and brick from the demolished Sunday school creating an environmentally credible development which embodied a perfect balance of new and old.

There are lots of old churches around that could be redeveloped, but for anyone attempting a scheme like this it’s important to go in with your eyes open. The tremendous energy from the organisations and individuals involved really sent a strong message to the wider community about the importance of this project to the local area.

Obviously, the buy-in of people in the surrounding areas is crucial to any development, and more compellingly, it was these very individuals who came up with the innovative solutions for funding. The several partners involved also remained flexible and open to ideas all the way through the process as plans and layouts changed several times.

When it came to the interior design of the building we involved students from Manchester University who took on the project as an exercise and brought real creativity to the layout. Bringing in young talent from the region was a no-brainer really and it only served to enhance the feeling that this development was a real local triumph.

There is no doubt that for anyone embarking on a development project, securing funding can be one of the most difficult barriers to break through, particularly in the current economic environment.

Since May 2010, the coalition government’s reduction of the financial deficit has led to reductions in public spending in key areas that previously supported the regeneration of the regions. Local authorities have funding issues across the public sector – the rug has literally been pulled from underneath them. But there are potential ways around this.

The New Homes Bonus initiative, which was introduced by the government in April, aims to provide local authorities with the tools to lessen the strain on public services and reduced amenities. In theory it could help to provoke a more positive attitude to growth.

Sitting alongside existing planning framework for making decisions, the bonus will match fund the additional council tax raised for new homes and properties brought back into use, with an additional amount for affordable homes, for the following six years. A real incentive for local authorities to get on board.

Undoubtedly the key to the success of this development was the support of the local community. Ensuring they were consulted at every stage made them feel part of an important change in their area. There is a feel good factor in Levenshulme which will hopefully continue for years to come.


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