Pop Brixton (and the Q&A last night)

Catchy title, eh? Lambeth’s Cooperative Council put out a call for a project to fill the site of the old ice rink, and the bid to create Grow: Brixton won the competition that ensued over a year ago. Their plan looked like this:

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The bid was put forward by a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and The Edible Bus Stop, and you can see more of the original plans as covered by the Brixton Buzz here. I liked it, containers are very cool.

They held a live pop-up music and cinema event last summer, which was greatly enjoyed by many and which showed promise to become a genuinely bottom-up all-around good thing for central Brixton.

In July they submitted a planning application for 5-year temporary use of the land on Popes Road  also slated by the council as a site of the future massive redevelopment being orchestrated by Future Brixton.

In September Planning permission was recommended.

And then in December, everything changed as the name became Pop: Brixton, the Edible Bus Stop pulled out of the project. The scale became grander, with less emphasis on food and environment more on business and entrepreneurship.

From the website you can see that the community partner is now The Collective, a property development and management company ‘formed by a group of Millennials on a mission to redefine the way young people live, work and play’ and ‘targeted at ambitious young professionals.’ 

So this evening the crowd awaiting answers from Philippe Castaing, Commercial Director of Pop Brixton, along with Cal Turner (architect and director) and Cllr and Cabinet Member Jack Hopkins was not an entirely happy one.

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Their mood did not improve through the evening. Interesting though, was that the muttered outburst and eye rolls and shared knowing smiles weren’t quite in synch, signalling some different sources of frustration and different groups of Brixtonites.

Or Brixtonians. There were some debates about who was more Brixton than who in that upstairs room in the Market House, complicated by not being able to see much less hear everyone, and large sofas that ensured a large physical distance between us.

I failed to get a beer or a seat which would allow me to hear well, as I had trouble getting out of work and arrived a few minutes late. I really needed the beer.

There was a lot of talk from Castaing and Cllr Hopkins about lofty ideals, the councillor used the phrase ‘getting on and up in the world’ three times. Phrases like that grate on me just a bit.

They talked about how hard they have tried to help local people get space there — and if their figures are right they did all right on that count. 85% of businesses owners are Lambeth residents, and 58% from Brixton — those are the figures I noted, but twitter says 65%. I checked the FAQs passed out at the meeting and I am correct.

This first phase is the commercial one, the one where they have to let all of the allotted units at market rates to ensure their own viability and the provision of the subsidised units which have not been filled and will come soon. Even for the commercial units, they scored applicants by (and this also from their FAQs):

  • the quality of their business plan
  • their locality to the project
  • their alignment to Pop’s ethos of supporting the local area
  • their commitment to the local community

Each business also must donate one hour of time to community projects (4 hours a month, it’s hardly going to move mountains is it?) through some kind of time bank, but that clearly is the bit that has not been thought through.

There is no mechanism in place yet, nor any plan for evaluation of if its working, how it is working or its impact. A bit shoddy really, as this aspect of ‘social value’ is the whole point.

The audience was certainly disapproving.

The two key questions the Buzz has been following were answered, though not particularly well. The first: What exactly happened to Grow Brixton?

Cllr Hopkins answered. He stated there had been a public bid won by Grow Brixton, a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and the Edible Bus Stop. The two fell out. Lambeth tried to help them hold together, brought in mediation, it didn’t work.

Carl had the money to step forward and carry on alone, and because this is a pop-up venture the clock was ticking in terms of its time on the site before the major development commences. Given that, they decided to have Carl Turner carry it forward.

He noted nothing was lost from the original bid.

The second question, is how has the plan changed and grown since planning was approved? Carl answered this one.

The original plan was for 33 containers on site, but it was just a sketch design and they were surprised, though delighted to win. They then had to really figure out how to make it happen and how they were going to pay for it.

The planning application was for 50 containers. Since then there have been another 4 or 5 containers added, for a total of 55. He didn’t sound so sure about that as a total.

He said it’s a big site, they went through a long process, and there were no objections in planning. Back when they were still partners with the Edible Bus Stop.

There were questions about how this will affect neighbouring businesses — the response was they believe it will impact them positively, as it will drive increased footfall into this ‘forgotten’ corner of central Brixton.

Cllr Hopkins noted that the council sacking a 1000 workers had had a huge impact on local businesses as it had driven down their takings during the week. No more lunches, no more drinks after work. Anything is good that brings more workers into Brixton.

I mourned a little there for my friends who have lost jobs, and this off-hand acknowledgement of the multiple ways their loss has hit us.

On this same topic, the first audience question was whether they had approached the businesses in the arches about relocating. The answer was yes. Jose in the audience confirmed it, and noted he didn’t follow up on the invitation as he had heard that the rents were quite high.

Anyway, he’s staying in his arch.

Another set question was on how much public funding was in this project, and why. Cllr Hopkins stepped forward.

The funding is mostly in kind as they are giving use of the land free. There have also been ‘small pots’ of money accessed. The one he mentioned was through the move of the Impact Hub now in the Town Hall, and the 166 people currently working out of it, into Pop Brixton. There is some money from the mayor keeping that going, matched by the council.

Will it still be public space? they asked. Oh yes was the reply, everyone is welcome. The gates will only close when the whole complex is closed.

There were some questions and complaints about prices — information not currently available on their website and people felt that for transparencies sake it should be.

Castaing stated that the ‘affordable’ units are currently set at £9 a square foot — while the commercial rents range from £800 to £2500 for a whole container.

Different pricing systems, I am still not sure of the maths. Later a figure of about £60 a square foot for commercial space was thrown out there. This does seem to make the ‘affordable’ space actually affordable, however.

Even if it will come too late to help tenants moving from the Piano House, which is being converted into flats. One of these tenants being thus forced out of Brixton was there.

An artist who felt insulted by the process she was involved in while consulted on the project was also present.

It wasn’t the outcome hoped for by the folks of Pop Brixton. I couldn’t help but feel it was the clash of two different worlds though, and they weren’t being challenged here on what is actually what has everyone so angry.

Within their own frameworks — acceding to austerity and the demands of development and profit and trying to squeeze out of gentrification a few drops of what they can for the community  — this is in fact a good project, and they are doing their their best.

Of course, if you started from what the community needs rather than what little we can do with what we can scrape off of an enterprise that needs to earn a profit, this is not the project that would have emerged. But what the community needs is not going to come out of the neoliberal tool box.

Cllr Hopkins can point to the Tories and say in truth their cuts are devastating, and he has very little power to do anything. What he can’t say is that his party is leading the fight back, has an alternative, or is remotely capable of coming up with one.

Brixton will be lost under their watch, and they don’t even recognise it.

So no one up there understood the anger of the people they were facing who are steadily getting pushed out of a place they love, nor the fact that this development will just help push property prices and rents up even higher. The fear that this will just be another place catering to (and attracting) the wealthy. That the harm it causes in this sense, will most likely far outdo any good it does.

Anyway, in a few years it will be swept away. We need to be asking what happens to those local businesses. As the final speaker noted, pilot projects mean ‘people come in, do their thing, and jet.’ In the face of the massive development about to hit Popes Road, we may almost remember Pop Brixton fondly.

So it was a depressing walk home, and uphill all the way.

[a version posted earlier on Brixton Buzz with more pictures of the containers, I’ll get down there for the opening I think, and take my own]

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