The road to sustainability
When Dave Newton talks about West Itchen Community Trust he doesn’t mention the word regeneration.
Regeneration was the round two SRB programme that spent £lam tackling the physical appearance of the area before running out of money and heading out of town.
In this ethnically diverse area of Southampton where ill-health and under-employment are major problems, the shadow of crime and historically poor environment linger to shake the nerves of outsiders and money leaks into the nearby city centre it was clear that more had to be done.
As the programme drew to a close the board took a bold step, deciding to invest some of its remaining funds in underperforming or dilapidated commercial property and set up a community trust to support local people and the local economy. Its £1.2m spending spree landed an office building, a terraced house (which became home to a community project) and an old GP surgery. A small enterprise park of 16 units and a small piece of industrial land were gifts from Southampton Council.
It sounds like a big risk but managing director Dave Newton says risks were contained. ‘I think there were nervous people and some who needed to be convinced but the board was clued up and we looked carefully at whether the assets were underinvested or fundamentally flawed. The local authority and Seeda [South East England Development Agency didn’t take risks, they were supportive and selective, so we had the ideal recipe of a skilled and brave board and a regional development agency and local authority prepared to work with them.’
That rare combination came about because the board had a good range of experience and the agencies trusted them, having worked with many on SRB2.
The trust itself was ambitious but not foolhardy. Initially, external agents were brought in to manage the property while trust members found their feet and learned the ropes. By degrees they took the reins and are now managing the property themselves. ‘There was training along the way and expertise on the board so that helped inform staff in the management of the portfolio. As we acquired a new building we built up confidence and took on another so it was learning by doing. About eight months ago we took management in-house and that is working well. We are investing more in the properties because we see issues before they become a crisis.’
In just five years and with just five staff it has started 14 businesses, supported another 20, created 20 jobs, supported 30 voluntary organisations with coaching, networking and micro finance, helped voluntary groups raise £500,000 for the area and supported 50 individuals with their personal development.
‘We are now at a stage where we are relatively stable and have sufficient income to cover the work we do in the community. The challenge for us is to get from that point to being on a cycle of growth, developing a year on year surplus to increase our community activity,’ Mr Newton says.
But because this is a community development approach the rate at which the business grows is determined by local capacity -it’s growth of and with the community.
And that is why this isn’t regeneration. It’s not a big bang with big bucks -just £2.5m has been spent by the trust compared with £10m through SRB; it’s nota hit and run.
‘We will be raising income for the area as long as we survive,’ Mr Newton says. ‘There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be here in 25 years’ time. People should be able to depend on us for the long term.’
The trust now owns and manages seven sites including some retail property that aims to support small businesses by giving them flexible leases (they can give a month’s notice if things aren’t working out) in shared accommodation.