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From co-ops to culture: How community-led regeneration has changed Dalston

koichi and seedsAs London’s east end undergoes significant gentrification, a co-operative is helping embed community ownership, ensuring locals aren’t priced out of their homes and businesses. Dominic Ellison explains

Hackney Co-operative Developments has been leading bottom-up, community-led regeneration in Dalston for over 30 years.

It began in 1982 when a group of Hackney-based members of a local housing co-op wanted to support other local housing co-op residents to set up in business.

Since then we have targeted our support where we knew it would have the most lasting impact on the local community, with a focus on its economy.

Our remit has expanded, from supporting people wanting to start co-operatives to helping thousands of individuals set up new businesses and find a better route out of poverty than low-paid and exploitative employment.

We have developed a significant footprint of commercial property in the local area, made a strong contribution to the urban physical regeneration of the area through creating iconic buildings and public space, and have been a catalyst for the area’s cultural renaissance.

The rise of Dalston: Regeneration and gentrification
Since 2001 our area has experienced a rise in the proportion of people in professional occupations and in self-employed professionals.

Not long ago, Dalston was a no-go area, but now more than a quarter of our residents are between 20-29 years old – that is 9% higher than London as a whole – and we have an increasingly professional and younger population.

This goes hand on hand with the large rise in average prices of flats in Dalston, up 13% since just 2009, which is also largely supported by our improved transport links. Hackney as a whole has become an area of growing economic opportunity as a result of the increased focus on east London.

crowd members 14However, this growth sits alongside significant deprivation. Local people continue to face persistent inequalities and are disproportionately affected by child poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency. Dalston remains one of the UK’s 10% most deprived wards, with a 10% higher proportion of dependant children receiving tax credit in lone parent families compared to Hackney borough as a whole. In total 10% of our residents are long-term unemployed and this has remained unchanged over 13 years.

The upward economic path we see in Dalston is not distinctly targeting our local population, but is in large part a result of new people from higher socio-economic demographics moving in and changing our local balance.

Vastly increasing price tags on our homes may well be helpful to long-term residents looking to sell-up and leave, but is not supportive of families growing up, whose children want to stay in their communities when they set up homes of their own. We have seen a 17% reduction in the proportion of people who own their own homes, and falling home ownership means a more transient community. It is notable that much of Dalston’s new housing stock is being bought up by foreign investors as buy-to-let investments.

Rising property prices affect the commercial sector too. With more affluent customers in the local area, we have become more attractive to big business, and brands like Starbucks are now starting to make an appearance. This has a upwards impact on commercial property values, which has a negative impact on local people looking to start up a new enterprise, as premises often represent the largest annual outgoing for new businesses.

Dalston smallLocking in community wealth
The rise in property values and increased gentrification mean that the property portfolio built up by Hackney Co-operative Developments over the years is now even more significant. By rehabilitating derelict housing stock and factories, upgrading under-used commercial space and developing local landmarks like Dalston Culture House, we have been able to establish business hubs totalling nearly 80 individual workspaces, shops, cafés, bars, restaurants, clubs and music venues in the very heart of this thriving town centre, all of which are made available at affordable workspace rates.

These house independent businesses owned by local people, co-operatives, social enterprises and cultural organisations, some of which have grown incredible international reputations, such as the Vortex Jazz Club and Circleline Design and all of which are deeply rooted in Dalston’s community.

Local ownership of businesses provides for a stronger and more resilient local economy, as reams of studies evidence. Local businesses are more likely to employ local people and to purchase goods and services from other local organisations, delivering the multiplier effect of keeping money within the local economy.

The very make-up of our own organisation guarantees that this provision remains an accessible resource for local people. Our asset lock ensures that the stock cannot be sold off, other than to invest in improved commercial premises for local economic development. Our organisation is democratically controlled, transparent and accountable to the community it serves, the community it is made up of.

We want to grow the proportion of the local economy

that is owned by the community as opposed to shareholders.

All those who live or work locally and believe in our co-operative principles and ethos and support community-led economic regeneration can apply to become members. Our members appoint our board democratically each year and our board is made up of community leaders, representatives of the co-operative and trade union movements, the social enterprise sector and the businesses and community groups that seek our services. How many other commercial landlords would appoint their tenants to make up the substantial proportion of their board?

This ensures that every penny of surplus we make is directly invested back into our community, by expanding and improving the commercial property base, supporting the development of local, social and community enterprise and providing community organising and cultural enrichment in our public space, Gillett Square, which has received a great deal of critical enthusiasm from across the world (we regularly welcome delegations of policymakers, practitioners, students and journalists from Korea and Scandinavia to learn from us and have won a number of awards including World Architecture News’ Effectiveness Award).

Embedding democratic governance
When supporting the establishment of new social and community organisations we strongly promote the importance of democracy and accountability. It is for us the cornerstone of good governance. In our new development support programme, Pioneering social enterprise in Hackney, we are delivering support to co-operatives and social enterprises that can demonstrate that they are rooted in Hackney, that they are serving a demonstrable good for society, and that the ownership and control is shared and democratic.

We want to grow the proportion of the local economy that is owned by members or the community as opposed to shareholders. We want to see more socially-owned organisations in Hackney, and for more people to buy from locally-owned co-operatives and social enterprises so that we can see more money staying in the local, social economy. The sticky effect created by spending with local organisations builds stronger, more resilient communities, and democratising ownership gives communities genuine control over how this sticky money helps them to thrive.

Later in the year we will be launching a ‘Pioneering Social Enterprise in Hackney’ quality marque which recognises the organisations that are already doing this for Hackney.crowd members 32

A feature of our work that has proven contentious for some is our insistence on democratic community ownership, which means that the support we offer is at the exclusion of some individualist social entrepreneurs who are genuinely achieving good things for society.

We are however unapologetic about this as we fully recognise the fundamental importance of a shared participatory system of governance in ensuring any organisation will endure its lifetime in the interests of the community it serves and is not vulnerable to market forces.

Whether supporting a start-up, growing or changing enterprise, we frequently spend as much time helping to develop the governance systems as we do the business planning and financial modelling. This focus on participatory democracy for community organisations has certainly been proven to be successful for Hackney Co-operative Developments for over 30 years of sustainability, supporting countless organisations that have contributed it the vitality and viability of the local community, and we look forward to 30 years more.

  •  For more information on Hackney Community Developments click here

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