QuestioningPlace

Coming back to blogging, 10 years on

This year I started a master’s degree. It feels like the culmination of a journey. That journey started a decade ago when I started writing a hyperlocal news blog about Levenshulme, the place where I live. The route has been circuitous, and I certainly had no idea where it would lead me, but here I am. Along the way I have developed a fascination with place – places where we live, places we share and how we share them.  

Now I find myself thinking academically for the first time in my life and confronting ideas that fascinate me. I have spent much of the last decade involving myself to varying degrees in place interventions (although only really having the language to recognise them as such for the last few years) and it’s both interesting and, at times, alarming, to view them within a place making framework. Mostly though, I am enjoying a seemingly endless opportunity to ask questions. Questions about what places are for and – because you can’t ask the first question without asking the next one – who they are for. 

I believe those questions are fundamental to how we live our lives. So I am writing here to give myself a chance to explore them in public and – hopefully – to invite other people into a conversation about our places.

How did I end up here? 

Here’s the potted history of my relationship with place, in case anyone’s interested. Apologies in advance to anyone to whom I don’t give due credit – it is hard to condense a decade of personal growth into 1500 words.

In 2009 I took over a small-scale hyperlocal news blog called LoveLevenshulme. Its stated aim was to find positive stories about an area that – at the time – was not showing its best side to the world. I had recently come out of a complicated relationship and in a figurative sense I didn’t like where I lived. Taking on a blog that gave me the opportunity to love where I lived in a very literal way seemed like one way to distract myself from my pain. With time I found myself loving my life in all sorts of ways I once thought impossible. The blog won an award, I met lots of new friends and I started to get more and more involved in the life of my community. 

For the sake of the blog and my own need for distraction I got into the habit of going to pretty much every meeting I was invited to. And so I ended up at a meeting of traders and residents concerned about the future of the recently-established council-run Market in Levenshulme.  

The original iteration od the  Market was established in response to The Portas Reviewwhich recommended (among other things) that ailing high streets could be helped by street markets. Manchester City Council already had the resources in the form of a dedicated markets team and Levenshulme high street was one of three designated “at risk” high streets in Manchester at the time – you can see that a market for  Levenshulme probably seemed like a pretty compelling quick-win to the powers that were. 

All was not well though – traders were not being retained and the monthly Market was not being well promoted, putting it in a downward spiral: less traders one month made for less customers the next month, and so on. 

The City Council’s Regeneration team had heard concerns from local businesses who had taken on trading spaces and invited them and concerned residents (and me!) to meet to discuss options. My fellow meeting attendees and I took on the task of delivering a proper communications plan and a customer service-focussed approach to booking traders and three months later the Market was thriving.

We were called to another meeting. The Council’s Market’s team had determined that, despite our efforts and the growth we had managed to create, the Market was financially unsustainable. How they reached this conclusion I never found out because they never showed us the figures but the implication was clearly articulated to us: the Market would not continue unless the community took it on. 

And so began many months of meetings with a changing cast of actors who all had an interest in the market and – crucially – asked different questions about what a market could do for Levenshulme. After a reasonable period of wrangling we settled on one idea we could all get behind – that a market could help the high street in Levenshulme but that a market alone wouldn’t be capable of making change. This was underpinned by a recognition that Levenshulme was a community that had some very deep divisions along lines of class, race and affluence and that those divisions were playing out in a very economically unhealthy district centre. Our idea was that, if we could use any profits the Market made to address some of that economic ill health, then maybe we could open up some pathways to the high street to local people.  

It was a plan, but in no way was it well planned. I wrote my first ever business plan using a template I found on the internet and I was definitely liberal with the optimism and light on the detail. In particular we were woolly on how we would be addressing the social issues we identified (or even what the issues exactly were). No matter though – the financial forecast I was working from (based on a template I used to work out the profit of the black tie dinners I was running for corporate financiers at the time) showed an annual profit of £400 – it was unlikely we’d ever have to put our money where our morals were. That said, the business model itself incorporated a few values-based operational tactics: we gave priority to booking for local people; kept stall fees as low as possible; and paid a living wage to employees. We incorporated as a social enterprise in March 2013 and, with a start-up grant from Manchester City council, started trading not long after. 

And it flew. Within a few months (the Market at that time was a monthly operation) we were selling more stalls than we could borrow gazebos for, with long waiting lists of traders and a loyal and happy customer base. Soon we were generating significant profits and considering options for expansion. In November 2013 I worked with UnLtd who helped me to develop a new business plan that would take the Market from a monthly operation to a weekly one and develop our options for operating on multiple sites. That we did – with UnLtd funding me to turn my full time job into a part time one for a year. The intention was that by the end of 2014 the Market would be generating enough revenue to support the staff to keep it running. Until that time all the work that I and my fellow directors were doing was entirely voluntary, although we employed a small team of support staff to put up stalls and electrics for every Market.  

At the same time, we were contemplating what to do with these unexpected profits. By the start of 2014 we had accumulated £10,000 and faced a dilemma. Having never expected to have this money to share with the community, we never settled on exactly how or where we would share it. In light of this – and the need to make a show of our engagement with the issues that faced the community – we made the decision to disperse the money via a participatory budgeting event. Nearly 200 Levenshulme residents packed into the largest room we could find and dispersed the money amongst nine projects. The projects were pitched via an open call for small-scale interventions to improve the local trading environment. The projects included a refurb to a local café keen to capitalise on Market footfall, a local woman setting up her own South Asian street food stall, a local business woman wanting to do training to expand her high street upholstery business and a week-long contemporary art festival held in the public realm. 

By the end of 2014 the Market was operating profitably enough to be able to employ a part time Manager. We expanded the team of set-up staff and began to run a second site at The University of Manchester. At the same time we were gaining a considerable name for ourselves in the local and national press, including being in the running for a BBC Food and Drink award.

In 2015 I went on maternity leave and used the opportunity to contemplate my role in the Market and its impact so far. 

On my return I set about designing my exit. I loved the Market (and I always will!) but I knew it needed fresh voices to steer it from a place of charismatic leadership to operational management. I was also crucially aware that there were two flaws in our success story that I needed to move towards resolving before I left.  

Firstly, too much sat on my shoulders. I didn’t personally mind that (with a small child I was quite used to getting up early, and doing that every Saturday to haul gazebos into place and direct traders to stalls was often preferable to changing nappies) but I was also aware that it was bad for the business. My volunteer labour was not accounted for in the finances and there was no provision for what would happen if I wasn’t able to be there. It was also holding my fellow directors back from shaping the business in their image and stifling the abilities of our new manager to find her own leadership path.  

Secondly, the Market was not reflecting the diversity of the community in Levenshulme. At the 2011 Census 21% of the population of Levenshulme identified as British Asian but the Market was a sea of white faces every Saturday. The customers were largely local – there was a growing population of young, affluent people moving to the area who kept the tills ringing – but there was no way that we could claim it was serving the whole community. Whether it should do (as a business person I would argue that few businesses can be all things to all people) is a matter for debate. Regardless, the issue seemed worthy of exploration. The problem as I perceived it spoke to the issue we identified back in 2014. We had never defined our social purpose and therefore it was now near impossible to identify to what extent we were working for social good (or ill).  

So in 2016 I devised my exit plan; a period of board and staff expansion and greater sharing of information amongst the leadership team (sounds simple there – it took over a year!); and an independent report on the social value the Market had created since its inception, accompanied by set of recommendations for future measures and approaches. Both were delivered by the end of the 2017 and at the start of 2018 – on the fifth anniversary of this project which had started with just another meeting and become my defining experience – I stood down from the board. 

While all this was happening I had plenty of other experiences of place making, small-scale and large scale, grass routes and institutional. I couldn’t list them all here if I tried. I learned something from them all but the Market was what made me, in so many ways.

I learned so much about myself from setting up and running the Market as well as plenty about how to run (and not) a business. Most importantly, it taught me what I care about.  

I care about places – what and who they are for. I care about what happens when people are not included in the decisions about their places or are told that places are not for them – either explicitly or implicitly. That’s why I decided to study for a master’s, alongside working full time and looking after two small children. People ask me how I do it and the answer is it is bloody hard work. But the longer answer is that when you care about something as much as I have learned I care about places, it doesn’t feel like work – it feels like life. 

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