Around 200 people packed into the Horniman Museum on Thursday night to welcome £100,000 in funding from the government’s Portas Pilot for Sydenham, Kirkdale and Forest Hill.
Residents and businesses heard how a ‘Town Team’ assembled by the council from among local entrepreneurs – and still recruiting – hoped to rejuvenate the area’s high streets by starting a market, founding twinned community hubs, and commandeering empty shops.
Louise Brooks, a Sydenham marketer and mother who is heading one third of the bid’s three-pronged plan, said the event had been a huge success.
She said: “We were at full capacity. We ended up with over 200 people, and it was very well received. We’ve had all of the feedback forms from last night and there are lots of people that want to be involved in various capacities, and I think people kind of understand that this is just the start.”
Earlier this month, Lewisham became one of 15 UK towns to win a second round of funding earlier from the experimental regeneration project headed by TV shopping queen turned Coalition advisor Mary Portas. It joined Croydon as one of the 25 towns in total who will be piloting the ideas agreed between Portas and the government last December.
Lewisham’s winning bid has three components:
- The Shop Revolution aims to refurbish and let out up to 12 vacant retail units, liasing with landlords who let their property go to waste by securing rights for ‘meanwhile’ use by pop-up or community organizations.
- ‘Jack’ and ‘Jill’ will be the names of two high street shops – one in Sydenham, one in Forest Hill – renovated as community hubs for events, workshops, exhibitions and further planning.
- Market Makers will organise rotating fairs and markets across three local spaces, testing the waters for a permanent market in the area and encouraging local traders to get their business out onto their doorsteps, making creative use of public and private space.
Now the bid team are looking for locals willing to join up, open stalls, host workshops, volunteer, offer empty spaces and pitch in.
Chris Best, councillor for Sydenham, urged locals to “shape the place where you live” and said the town team would soon be looking for paid workers and volunteers.
She said: “We’ll have two community hubs, and we need volunteers to help in those hubs, so we can capture people’s views, understand what people want, and they can showcase their goods. I hope it’ll start buzzing. I hope people will come on in and give us what they can – time, ideas, views, feedback – everyone’s got something they can share.”
The Town Team will also receive mentoring and advice from business and organisations involved with the Portas Pilot, as well as other pilot towns.
Another Portas Pilot in Margate in Kent – one of the first wave of towns chosen – ran into controversy today as local leaders quit the project, accusing the celebrity shop maven of being more interested in her TV show than their town.
The contrast to Lewisham’s enthusiasm at the Horniman on Thursday could not have been more sharp, but it remains to be seen how the project will play out in the rest of the country.
Brooks, who runs a marketing consultancy from her Sydenham home, was repeatedly interrupted by her small children as she gamely struggled to explain her part of the plan – the refurbishment of empty shops – to EastLondonLines in a phone interview.
She said: “For various reasons, a lot of landlords are quite happy to leave them empty, and we need to really engage with them and understand what their barriers are and work with them so that we get the shops filled with interesting meanwhile uses – with the long-term aim of filling them with sustainable business.”
But she stressed that there is hard work ahead for the project, which cannot survive on its initial grant for long. The long-term plan is to seek independent funding sources and become a sustainable commercial proposition.
She said: “There are barriers to starting up a market, and part of that is the rates that the council charges for licenses and that sort of thing, and so these are some of the things we need to overcome in order to overcome a sustainable market.”
“This is just the start. It’s really just a drop in the ocean.”