Community Facilities & Creative Infrastructure

This article was written while Synergy was resident at the Camberwell Centre and is therefore a little out of date and London specific.

There is a significant and urgent need for The Synergy Centre to have a secure and sustainable future in their current premises at 220 Farmers Road. The purchase of this ideally located, large building, which Southwark Council has identified as the ‘only facility’ of its kind in the local area, will ensure the continuation and expansion of targeted, community led, accessible services which meet the needs of the local community.

The local community of West Camberwell is one in which there is a very high concentration of social housing (79% against a London average of 13%), with very few community facilities. The atomised nature of urban living is such that levels of social cohesion are low and the social problems which arise within a disadvantaged, fragmented community are particularly prevalent. A community arts centre which uses creative and cultural activities to promote a greater sense of ‘pride of place’ in the community, celebrating diverse local cultures as a means of promoting tolerance between peoples, and promoting health and ethical living will have a significant impact on the quality of life of local residents and on the wider social and cultural ecology of the area.

There is also a need for local key initiatives such as the Camberwell Creative Network (a partnership of local creative and cultural organisations seeking to promote creative development and collaboration in the community) and the local Community Council to have access to a suitable community premises to carry out activities which are vital to their agendas and activities. The potential of various south London community and creative initiatives is significantly limited by the lack of premises which can facilitate community activities, communications, and a co-operative approach to regeneration.

Southwark is a highly diverse community, with a particularly high concentration of people of African origin. There is therefore a significant local wealth of culture that remains largely un-harnessed due to the lack of infrastructure, both physical (buildings and equipment) and social (skills and networks) to support its development. Many local community cultural associations or creative individuals do not posses the necessary skills or knowledge necessary to develop their work and they are rarely engaged with the appropriate networks or agencies which exist to promote their development. This reveals a need for a creative and cultural hub where those with more experience in running creative and cultural social enterprises can advise, support and signpost less engaged groups and individuals to sources of support which will foster their growth. Often disengaged minority groups and individuals do not possess the necessary confidence in the agencies and networks to respond to their needs. Showcasing examples of organisations / individuals from minority community backgrounds which have successfully engaged and have attracted support can inspire others to follow this example, creating a culture of enterprise and engagement that lays the foundation of a vibrant local creative and cultural economy.

The only other local leisure focussed facility, The Camberwell Leisure Centre, has an uncertain future and due to limited space cannot host start-up individuals or organisations that need access to low cost space in which to develop. The Synergy Centre therefore fills a major gap in local provision in helping to raise the capacity of the cultural grass-roots of an economically and socially disadvantaged but culturally rich community.

Premises is identified in the Southwark Local Area Infrastructure Plan 2006 as a crucial issue relating to community cohesion within the borough, with local MP Harriet Harmon outlining the importance of community centres in bringing cohesion to this deprived and fragmented area in consultations with centre staff. This is linked with Ed Miliband’s emphasis on the importance of supporting community infrastructure which engages citizens and draws upon London local government ‘blueprints’ for creating community cohesion through the creation of community hubs, which ChangeUp indicates can also make the third sector stronger and more effective. Community cohesion initiatives can be severely limited by a lack of engagement with the hardest to reach and as strategic bodies such as the Skills for Economic Inclusion Network suggest, this points to a need for grassroots initiatives with direct links to communities of interest to be centrally involved with creating and delivering the agendas of community hubs and other efforts to create community cohesion.

The day to day demand of the Centre’s facilities and services is also a testimony to the need for the Centre. The Centre facilitates 10 regular leisure and community services per week, 4 faith services each weekend and experiences such a volume of requests for one off local community events (such as christenings and birthdays) that individuals are often turned away or need to change their prospective dates. Demand is also high from local voluntary and community groups, with organisations such as Peabody Trust and the Community Development Foundation being amongst those who use the Centre for conferences and workshops.  Requests for advice (particularly on how to constitute an organisation and apply for funding), ideas for community initiatives and festivals and other creative activities in the area are regularly suggested to centre staff, demonstrating the need for the Centre to support, mentor and facilitate the regenerative potential of creative and community enterprise in the local area.

There is a significant take up of creative and cultural activities in the local area and as LDA Creative and Cultural Industries strategies indicate, fostering local creative talent and interest can have significant social and economic outcomes. However, there is a lack of capacity to harness the achievements of creative training and projects which prevents creative engagement and skills from being translated into meaningful life opportunities:

There appears to be a gap in post-project provision to help people to access and prepare for further education and employment opportunities.

The Synergy Centre, Southwark Neighbourhood Renewal and other local creative partners recently initiated the formation of the Camberwell Creative Network in order to champion the potential of creative and cultural activities in regenerating the local area, yet there are currently no facilities to enable large creative networking activities and other creative and cultural initiatives in the community. This lack of premises informs a limited ability to raise the capacity of fledgling creative and cultural enterprises through creative start-up and professional development support, the provision of affordable spaces for hire and access to networks with other creative organisations through a local creative hub.

This agenda of creative regeneration dovetails with the Young Southwark Strategy which recommends a multi-faceted approach to local youth issues which encourages creativity, participation, improved health, increased representation and a sense of value in the local community. James Purnell, Minister for the Creative Industries, has suggested that youth strategies need to support the drive to make the UK the world’s creative hub – “we should build our policies on that success… to look at what more we can do to nurture young creative talent”

However, the majority of creative skills building and youth engagement activities in the local area are short-term or one off initiatives or are not sustained through the support of a secure premises with ongoing signposting and support. This lack of facilitation and provision also highlights a gap in co-operation between youth agencies and grass roots initiatives in the local area.

This need for premises to enable creative youth development initiatives has been identified through consultations with a variety of local youth trainers, mentors and creative youth initiatives across south London, such as Raw Material, Community Media Design, Star Academy and Collective Artistes, who have stressed the need for facilities to showcase and professionally develop local young people’s skills and projects in order to maximise the potential of local youth initiatives.

There is also a proven need for locally specific activities which cater to the high proportion of black and ethnic minorities in the area – local mapping exercises reveal both Lambeth and Southwark are two of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the UK, with Southwark having the largest community of African origin in the UK. As outlined in the local Employment Strategy, local black and ethnic minority communities require culturally sensitive approaches to encouraging civic participation, employment and enterprise. The GLA’s commission to map black and ethnic minorities in the creative industries strongly identified a gap in support and provision for black and ethnic creative enterprise which the Centre seeks to bridge;

There does not, however, seem to be the same support infrastructure for BME owned and led ventures in London’s creative industries. There are major gaps in the provision of ‘near to market’ premises and related facilities, financing and educational gaps.

This feeds into a need to inspire the hardest to reach to participate in public life and to gain skills and information which enables them to become confident and active citizens with improved prospects and employability. Southwark’s Employment Strategy points to a lack of relevant qualifications as one of the commonest factors cited by jobseekers as a barrier to entering employment – providing a creative and community hub which can serve as a point of contact for the hardest to reach is an important stepping stone to increasing the uptake of local initiatives to improve basic skills and employability. Enterprise is also viewed as a key way in which to translate creative participation into financial independence.

Highlighting the need for creative development premises and support for enterprising individuals, The Centre receives numerous enquiries every week regarding running services from the premises. These are largely from individuals and groups who have entrepreneurial ideas and are inspired by success stories at the Centre including Kakastsitsi, who are the UK’s leading African drumming group, and Collective Artistes, a leading black/ African Theatre company. Discussion groups and consultations at the centre have indicated these local individuals often feel distrustful or lack the confidence to approach broader statutory support and development services and indicate a need for a trusted point of contact to develop confidence so that they can replicate existing models of growth and success. These fledgling ideas and enterprises need both physical space and strategic support in order to unleash their potential, as highlighted by Southwark Action for Voluntary Organisations (SAVO).

Creative and Cultural Industries, Enterprise/Employment and Social Cohesion

Recent studies underline the growing economic significance of the creative and cultural industries sector in London, showing that today:

  • The creative industries add £21 billion annually to London’s output, more than all the production industries combined and second only to Business Services at £32 Billion.

  • The creative industries as a whole represent London’s third largest sector of employment, with 525,000 people working either directly in the creative industries or in creative occupations in other industries.

  • The creative industries are London’s second biggest source of job growth, contributing roughly one in every five new jobs.

  • London’s creative industries are at the centre of a productivity revolution, expanding both jobs and wealth, with employment up by 5% per year, output by 8.5% and productivity by 4% between 1995 and 2000.

The Synergy Centre’s proposed work resonates strongly with the current UK Government initiatives to tackle social exclusion by empowering young people to acquire the skills and experience that enable them to take a more active and participatory role in economic and community life, thereby fostering a greater sense of social integration and inclusion.

Cultural activities can help build self esteem and respect for others, develop communications skills and teamwork, foster discipline, and can teach basic life-skills for those vulnerable to social exclusion.

Creative media are also an excellent way of communicating about social problems and how to tackle them, giving young people a voice with which to communicate their own perspectives on problems and solutions and thereby bridging gaps between different sections of society. A vibrant creative and cultural environment is also an excellent outreach vehicle to attract people to a space where educational resources about social, cultural and environmental health in its broadest sense are available. Creative and cultural events also have the capacity to generate significant revenue streams which can be used to cross-subsidise informal education projects.

In addition, whilst providing an engaging alternative to antisocial behaviour, creative activities and a sense of creative community identity can provide a window to enable creative enterprise and financial independence for the hardest to reach.