Saturday, 22 December 2012

Issues Facing Croydon TechCity Movement

Last Thursday I attended the Croydon TechCity movement meeting at Matthews Yard. My comments on the presentation about the Stop & Search telephone app(lication) has been posted on Inside Croydon (

There were many other issues raised during the meeting which I discuss here:


Matthews Yard is an interesting project providing flexible workshop with other facilities. Its owner Saif Bonar explained the approach he was seeking to raise £5,000 a small amount of money to buy equipment for a space at the Yard which will become a theatre and events venue, mainly for amateur groups and as a rehearsal space. This method is called crowd funding and it enables lots of people who back a n idea to donate a small amount of money. There is a Cloud Funding organisation: Its website says that it  will help start-up companies look into funding for their new business ventures offline/online. It  also has sections where investors can search for new creative business ideas. Another funding platform is the international for creative projects:  films, games, and music to art, design, and technology.  In its approach the full amount has to be raised for anyone to actually have to pay their money over. Saif is using Kickstarter ( He is to be congratulated for the way in which he explains that his initiative comes ‘against a backdrop of cuts to funding for arts, youth and community projects across the UK which have been felt across the borough’ with specific reference to  the loss of the DavidLean Cinema. ClockTower Arts Complex and Warehouse Theatre.  ‘These recent closures have left London's most populous borough with a vacuum in terms of space available for grass roots, community based arts and cultural activity in the town centre. Theatre groups rehearse in pubs and leave the borough to perform at venues outside the town, as no suitable space is available here. ‘

There are other funding mechanisms as well. One of those attending  the meeting works for Help My Cause based at Croydon Voluntary Action: It is supported among others by the Croydon BME Forum, SME Consortium (also based at CVA) and the Croydon based social enterprise care service PJ’s Community Service.  

Crowd funding can be used for small businesses and community and voluntary groups.  In the case of small businesses this does help owners to expand their services and products and any profits that are generated will be ploughed back into their businesses or enable them to draw money to cover their own costs of living.  Small venues such as is proposed are very important part of the infrastructure for cultural activities. The Alford House Youth Club in Vauxhall part funds itself by day time hiring of its large halls as rehearsal space. The White Bear Theatre on Kennington Park Rd is a small pub based theatre.  I asked Saif whether the administrator of the Warehouse Theatre (which had been shafted by the Council) had been approached as to the possibility of buying its equipment. He explained that he had had being having discussions and there might be a possibility of that happening, along with the possibility of equipment donations from other courses.  Another attendee suggested that the Croydon Youth Theatre be approached because it was going to have to leave the former school building it uses so that it can be converted back into a school.  This suggestion does raise the question of what is going to happen to the equipment owned by major community and voluntary groups that will collapse over the next 2/3 years as a result of Central and Local Government cuts  and the increased problems of raising money from other sources. Given the Couincil’s intention to reduce its role as a supporter of cultural activities, and its wish to develop Fairfield Halls as a monopoly facility (incorporating the names of the David Lean Cinema and the Warehouse Theatre, the development of small business supported cultural venues and activities is to be welcomed, while recognising their potential fragility if the businesses can be sustained profitably.

Crowdfunding in History

Crowdfunding is of course nothing new;  just a new piece of jargon. The member run trade unions, the co-operatives,  building societies, friendly insurance societies, non-Anglican churches, etc  were all built up on the pennies donated by their members, to which more wealthy people added larger sums of money.  The Morning Star newspaper, linked to the Communist Party which is based in Croydon, exists on crowdfunding through its Fighting Fund. Croydon Surrey Opera used a form of crowd funding to buy Clyde Hall as its premises. However, the internet based nature of crowd funding platforms does depend on people with small sums of money to give away/invest knowing about them. Being web based does not solve the problems of people’s lack of information, and the fact that most people do not re-visit sites  on a regular basis. Websites need to be backed by the provision of other sources of information, such as emails updates and newsletters, helping to spread the word. In a very small way this is the function of my EDiary & News and British Black History Digest.

The Problem of Space

In the presentation by Simon of dotmailer ( perhaps the most important issue to emerge was the problem of the type of workspace available for rent. He and his partners had been able to start because there was one complex of office space where the small  units were let on a monthly basis. However as it has grown it has become more and more difficult to find expansion space, which the absence of a great deal of such units in Croydon makes it difficult for start up companies as they grow. This is not a new issue. Years ago in Lambeth a young team developed the early architectural drawing programme. As they expanded they could not find appropriate accommodation in the Borough and moved out of London.

When I undertook the review of community buildings in its area for Stockwell Partnership in 2009/10 I looked at this issue of whether there was scope for community buildings to provide business units. Organisations registered as charities, companies limited by guarantee and industrial and provident societies are themselves businesses, showing social entrepreneurship. Several community buildings already contained space which was  let to other businesses as their operational bases, while others were exploring he possibilities.  

There were already a wide range of small office, business and industrial premises available for renting in and around the Stockwell area, and plans and ideas for the creation of more. Any business units created by the community and voluntary sector would need to take into account the existence of private sector provision in relation to setting their rental and service charges and conditions, and whether they can provide common support services.  There were several sites with potential to create small business units, including the upper floors of public houses. From time to time private sector owned properties  came onto the market which may be suitable for conversion into business units. The possibility of not-for-profit property ownership organisations investing in business units could be explored. There might also be scope for the development of business units if any Church buildings became redundant in the future. 

I drew attention to the need for a lot more knowledge about what the needs and aspiration of businesses were in the Stockwell area to ensure that the development of business units was relevant to help build and sustain local businesses. An important step towards helping to build a support system would be the creation of a database of local businesses. I suggested that this might be a role for Stockwell Park High School as part of its business studies specialism. I recommended that the Partnership discuss with the Ethical Property Company whether it could develop a role in the area to create and manage business units for charities, voluntary groups and social change organisations.

Specialist Office Space Companies

While the Company concentrates on the non-for-profit sector, and may have a role in Croydon there will be a need to identify property companies that will buy up traditional office blocks and convert them into smaller more flexible spaces. In the arts world there are organisations such as Artistic Spaces. Flexible workshop provision is one of the functions of some Development Trusts which are now co-ordinated by their national umbrella group Locality, which takes a lead role in the provision of advice to help the transfer of building assets from local authorities to Trusts. It might also be possible to see if there is scope to find a private wealthy individual who will invest in the creation of specialist accommodation, such as Damien Hirst is doing in Newport St in Kennington with a complex of workspaces, galleries and restaurant.

Adult Education Activities

Another person at the meeting asked whether the Yard could be used as a venue for low cost adult education activities, such as teaching foreign languages. The case was cited of the woman who wanted to offer Italian finding the price of hiring venues prohibitive. Said responded that such activity was a possibility. However, to develop the Yard as an adult education hub will require some effort being put into, for example, discussing with Croydon U3A using the venue for some of its activities, and finding out whether classes could be developed with the Workers’ Educational Association. The WEA is a member controlled organisation set up in 1903 in by people involved in the co-operative and trade union movements in Battersea and is still the largest non-state provider of adult education.  Said regretted the absence of a University in Croydon, but given the massive funding crisis facing Universities, this may not be a bad thing.  What could be developed instead is a ‘People’s University’ meeting the real educational needs of those who have been failed by the school system, by those needing English language skills, and adults who want to develop their interests which the formal adult education providers do not provide for or at a price people cannot afford.

Where Next for Tech City?

TechCity is not an organisation, it is a network of people interested in developing Croydon as a tech hub. It is developing itself as a potential ‘community’ of interest. There are a number of challenges it faces. How can it develop through 2013 as more than a talking shop, a facilitator of advice giving, and a gathering of like minded people at pleasurable events. It will need to recognise that developing as a specialist sector does not make it part of the wider communities of Croydon; businesses can still decide to move away. As I suggested at the end of the meeting it needs to consider how it can contribute to the reduction of the digital divide in Croydon to help people who cannot afford it to have IT access other than in their homes. Further how can it develop a platform which helps non-tech businesses and community and voluntary organisations to promote their products, services and activities to each other, so as to build inter-trading and support that mutual strengthens each other and the money staying in the local economy. Such a platform would have helped with publicising the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Festival and promoting the sale of the pamphlet about him which I published under my History & Social Action imprint.

Generating Ideas and Networking

It was very clear, as is so often the case at such events, that ideas quickly gel which could help to create joint opportunities for people. In Croydon the anti-knife campaign goes into schools. The Stop and Search app designers would like to see it promoted in schools. Perhaps there is scope for joint approaches to schools around a package linking crime, personal responsibility, finances and civil liberties as part of citizenship. Schools might find this easier to incorporate into their timetables than separate organisations each seeking a slot of time.
Networking at these TechCity meetings is important, but there are also other networks. Nobody can go to every meeting. It is beneficial if there are cross-links between different networks to encourage lateral thinking across them, otherwise they can easily become silos of knowledge and activity unrelated to anything else that is going on. 

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