Communities are fighting back in north Liverpool against a backdrop of government austerity and mishandled regeneration projects. From bakeries to laundrettes, community newspapers to ecological gardens, community business across Everton, Anfield and Kirkdale are finding innovative ways to build assets and grow the area from inside out.Few launderettes can have celebrated their opening with a ceilidh band, decked out with real underwear bunting above the door. But that’s exactly how Kitty’s Laundrette, a co-operative launched in May, breathed life back into the idea of a public washhouse in May this year.
Not just for washing Kitty’s is a genuine community asset, designed to give the people of Everton a warm welcome and a boil wash. It’s named in honour of Kitty Wilkinson, an instrumental figure in opening up the first public washhouse in the country in 1842, in Upper Frederick Street, and reflects much of that community spirit.
Inside there are pink walls and green Miele washing machines. At the launch each of the group of seven board members took a turn passing the microphone between them, telling a piece of the story from their perspective.
Britt Jurgensen and Sally-Anne Watkiss, both board members at Kitty’s and nearby Homebaked, a community bakery close to Liverpool Football Club, were amongst those who spoke. One of the last speeches was from Ian Byrne, a local councillor, resident and board member.
“For me, this place is really special,” he began. “It is significant, for all the residents and all the community, a place that has taken a lot of knocks over the years, and certainly because of austerity hasn’t had much hope. It’s far more than a launderette – it’s a spark of hope.” He ended his speech by thanking them for bringing the idea to Everton.
Grace Harrison, the co-founder of this project, says Cllr Byrne has been particularly helpful in supporting Kitty’s – and in easing her concerns about bringing a business to north Liverpool.
Grace Harrison, founder of Kitty’s Landrette. Picture: Matt Thomas
“I only met Ian Byrne a year or so ago but from the get-go, he was so supportive. He was always unapologetically like, ‘Listen, Grace, don’t let anyone ever make you feel like you’re not welcome. We are fucking lucky that you and your partner have chosen here to do your cool stuff.’ And obviously that is really heartwarming for me and I definitely turn to this voice when I get any sense of pushback against us.”
I first met Grace in the gatehouse of Stanley Park in 2015, the first day of pitches about the opportunities North Liverpool had for aspiring social entrepreneurs. This was the first time I’d heard her present her vision for a community-run launderette and it was her idea that stood out. She spoke about the need for a place for artists to work, but that could provide them paid labour in the same building; space for the community to gather as they carry out one of life’s routine essentials.
Grace and her team had spent much of the 2019 recruiting new members of the team to join them for their opening, with a focus on bringing local people into the project.
“It was really important in our recent recruitment process that we found people who were super local because we knew that we needed to get a better balance of people in the organisation – and we knew how important it was to find people who had been there a long time, had local roots and knew a lot of people and how fundamental they’d be in the next stage of the organisation.
“We don’t want to be a homogenous organisation full of people like me, much in the same way that we wouldn’t want to be a homogenous organisation full of loads of other types of single demographics.”
It hasn’t always been plain sailing – Grace admits to feeling “pressure building” after outlining her plans to the community. Now with a team in place and lots of good will from people in the area and beyond, the laundrette is ready.
“I’m really excited and terrified,” says Grace. “And I’m just looking forward to doing some fucking washing.”One of the biggest funders of Kitty’s was Power To Change, who invested in the project this year. A national funding organisation for community businesses – and an outfit that sees vast, untapped potential in Liverpool – Power To Change has invested in several community businesses the city’s north end.
“For me what’s powerful about it is the heritage and the link back to Kitty Wilkinson that gives the laundrette a powerful story,” says Vidhya Alakeson, its Chief Executive.
“The other thing that is exciting is that it’s a new generation of community business leaders. All of our analysis across the country shows that community business leaders are generally women between 40-60, so they are middle-aged to older. So having young people come through with that sort of energy and passion and wanting to change the world through community business is really exciting, but also vital.
“We’ve got to have people like Grace coming through to make this viable for the long term.”
A report by Heseltine Institute identified over 80 active community businesses across the Liverpool city region. The report identified the social economy as a key economic driver for the city and since 2015 PTC has pumped £4m into such organisations across the city, including Kitty’s and Homebaked. Just what is it about Liverpool?
“Liverpool is one of the hotspots for community business in the country,” says Vidhya. “There are a few, but not many places with the density that Liverpool has. “There aren’t a lot of places across the country where we’ve invested with that level of depth. There are not many places that have that depth.”
“I think there is a scale of ambition, which does exist elsewhere, which is really exciting in Liverpool now. The way Homebaked has shifted from the bakery to the high-street, from having one shop to having the terrace, is influencing some of the businesses outside the city and into the region. The fact that these community businesses are looking at the regeneration of an area and not just one business gives it a scale and an ambition that you don’t always get elsewhere.”
Kirkdale. Picture: Matt Thomas
“We’re at a point where we are now able to really seriously engage with the Combined Authority to say that this should be a big part of creating an inclusive economy and support them to do that. We’re talking them about a fund and talking to the Liverpool City Region LEP (the City Region’s primary economic development company) about how they might support the social economy more seriously.”
Power To Change’s definition of community business stats they must be locally-rooted, trading for the benefit of – and be accountable to – the local community and have broad community impact. The organisation is rooted in the idea that “no-one understands a community better than the people who live there” and PTC works with community businesses to revive local assets, protect services people rely on, and address local needs in areas that need investment.
“I think these areas have long historical roots of neglect in Liverpool and the fact that local authorities and central government walked away a lot from them,” says Vidhya.
“Collaboration like this certainly doesn’t exist everywhere.”
“I think of places like Granby 4 Streets (a community land trust that is taking ownership of derelict properties from the council and supports affordable housing, also backed by Power To Change), where a lot of their story is neglect by authorities, which leads to people then stepping forward. I think that’s something that has shaped a bit of the culture. I also think it probably has even longer historical roots back to the merchant era and enterprise being something that is written into the culture of the place.”
“Communities are stepping forward to take over services that they want and feel are important to them, services that Local Authorities can no longer provide.”
Vidhya argues that austerity can be devastating to communities, it can also act as a catalyst.
“Austerity has been a game changer. It’s not a temporary period where it’s going to go back to local authorities running libraries, leisure and children’s centres. But equally the demise of the retail sector and the retreat of the private sector in lots of communities is also a driver.”
“So you have three different dynamics. Some of it is communities meeting their own needs in a way that others have never met and it’s not like they are replacing anything. And in that you have places like Kitty’s Laundrette which is providing a new service: stepping in and stepping forward where both the market and the state have retreated.”
Vidhya believes a culture of collaboration in the city was key to the growth of new community businesses here.
“There is a very collaborative culture within the community businesses in Liverpool. I was really touched that Kitty’s has got pieces from the tiles from Granby Workshop in its floors and it’s almost a symbol of that collaboration. They all sit on each others’ boards and are mentors for one another and are all supportive of each other.”
“In places like Bristol for example they have quite a lot of community businesses but they’re not very well networked across the city – they don’t speak with one voice in terms of the local authority or through strategic stakeholders. That is facilitated in Liverpool by some of the longer-standing community businesses like Homebaked and Granby who play that role.”
“Collaboration like this certainly doesn’t exist everywhere.”“I thought it was too good to be true. It had so much potential,” says Joel Hansen, the editor of the Scottie Press, the UK’s longest running community newspaper, at his office at Millennium Resource Centre in Kirkdale.
“When something is this old and has a rich history and place and personality – and it does have a personality as a paper – it felt like getting to know someone.”
Joel started volunteering at Scottie Press in March 2017 and then started a paid placement scheme for six months in May of that year after being unemployed for eight months. When he arrived there hadn’t been an issue released in the previous eight months and the paper lacked an editor.
“I wasn’t born here and so I’ve got to really learn about this area, the people and what they want – and make sure that I represent their ideas and not what I want. You need to be here a little while and earn your stripes. I had to put the work in.
“I wanted to do a lot of things when I first came here and I had to hold back. I realised that I really didn’t know what this is or what I was doing. It’s taken me a while to find a purpose for the paper; getting to see what is happening here, what effect future developments are having and how that might have on the local community. And now I think the role of the paper is more important than ever.”
Joel Hansen, editor of the Scottie Press. Picture by Matt Thomas
Under Joel’s stewardship, nine issues of the Scottie Press have been released, with 1,000 copies per issue being sold across the city with a cover price of 50p. Proudly “Non-political and Non-sectarian” the first issue of the Scottie Press was released in February 1971: at eight pages the paper sold for sixpence. The issue’s cover story “Greaty Down – Prices Up!” detailed the closing of shops on Great Homer Street. For Joel the Scottie Press covers the news that other media organisations simply cannot or choose not to.
“I believe it provides news to a local demographic and place that otherwise wouldn’t be reported on extensively by the likes of the Echo. There isn’t another source providing stories like these.”
“Something I’ve noticed looking back at the old papers is that I think it can be a tool to reengage people locally in politics and help them to feel like they have a lot more say in what happens in the area. I think that people are a little more detached nowadays. When you look back at some of the older issues there were people out campaigning all the time, picketing up and down the streets and turning up at the town hall to make sure that the voice of the local community was heard. I think we can do that through our journalism and open up these discussions.”
“A story usually it follows a process. Firstly a planning application goes in and some sort of decision is made by the local council or developers that’s not necessarily something the community has been consulted on. Then community really wants to have a say and evaluate the situation. The paper’s function is to make people aware of this, or a group that has formed and how people can get involved in it and sign the petition, and a big part of it is supporting local campaigns.”
One of the things we’re trying to get across with the paper is that the council’s assets are the community’s assets – and so are your assets. People should take ownership of what is there and connect with their spaces.
Joel cites reporting on Tate and Lyles closure in the 1970s, the battle to keep local washhouses and swimming baths in the 1980s, a campaign to keep local boys school, Campion, in the 1990s and protests by the residents of the Flower Streets, where rented houses were repeatedly sold off, as examples of the purpose of the paper over the decades it has been in print.
Joel’s first issue as editor was in June/July 2017, Issue 435. The cover article about the protest to save the 101 bus route, that had served residents of Vauxhall for almost 40 years, stands out for him as continuing the purpose of the paper.
Picture by Matt Thomas
“I went to what I thought was a consultation about the 101 bus service being stopped at Queens Square bus terminal. What I didn’t expect was to see a load of pensioners protesting, completely blocking the bus station.
“The people who were picketing then were the same people from the early editions. The fight hasn’t gone out of them, even years later. They were taking turns because they were getting tired: one group in; one group out. There was meant to be a scrutiny panel set up by the MP Louise Ellman and it just didn’t happen, they just stopped the service.”
Joel mentions the future of the Grade II-listed Everton Library during our discussion about community assets, as he staples together a couple of issues for me (Joel still hand staples each issue of the Scottie Press). Local hotelier Lawrence Kenwright, who is thought to be preparing a bid to stand as mayor of Liverpool next year, says he wants to turn the derelict building into a venue for weddings, with tea rooms and a youth centre.
“I thought Everton Library was a really interesting way of localising a national story because it’s essentially councils being forced to sell off their assets due to austerity and government cuts. And it was interesting because we interviewed Ian Byrne, who is a radical-left councillor whose core belief is that we keep hold of council assets. In his eyes it’s the Tory government’s plan to strip away power or assets from councils.”
“That’s what’s interesting and one of the things we’re trying to get across with the paper is that the council’s assets are the community’s assets – and so are your assets. People should take ownership of what is there and connect with their spaces.
“It’s the same with the Ralla.”Issue 441 of the Scottie Press, a North Liverpool based community newspaper, carried a story about the Ralla, a green space in Kirkdale, that runs between Melrose Road and the railway line. The article, on the ‘Lungs of Kirkdale’ features an aerial photograph of the heavily-wooded land underneath. It is the only cover of Scottie Press that doesn’t carry copy on the cover.
“It touches on so many things that I think are so important,” says Joel Hansen.
“One is, keeping up promises to the community and if you’re going to announce a development, then you need to follow through on it. There was money dedicated to renovating that site in 2016 and it didn’t happen. And there are questions around public spending in that, too.
The article outlines statistics around Liverpool’s need for green spaces – a report by mapping firm Esri UK that showed that of the ten most populated cities in the UK, Liverpool has the lowest amount of green space; a World Health Organisation report quoted in the article indicates respiratory-related fatalities in Liverpool are double the national average. In Kirkdale it’s four times the national average.
“The issue that gets under my skin is the green space issue and the devastating levels of pollution in Kirkdale – the rate of respiratory issues and deaths and how important that site is to the environment but also to people’s health and wellbeing. That’s huge. To deny people of that without a reasonable explanation is unacceptable.”
For Joel, issues like this get to the nub of why there is unease, even distrust, over new developments in North Liverpool. Broken promises, flogged-off family silver and vested interests have unified the community in their scepticism over schemes and projects that are seen as being parachuted in; something done to the community rather than with the community.
The Ralla. Picture by Matt Thomas
The Scottie Press story outlines the background for the eight-acre site, which first came to prominence when the Echo carried the story of Kirkdale local Chloe Buckley, who became the face of a project to clean the site and bring it into use for the community – a project that reportedly received £50,000 from the council. In a 2016 article in the Echo Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson spoke of the site approvingly.
“It’s full of wild flowers, berries, butterflies and rabbits… it really is a hidden jewel, a breathtaking piece of green space in North Liverpool with a lot of potential and we want to ensure that this significant site is maintained to be used by the local community.
The article stirred interest among the local community, who formed a group to support the project. One member was Kirkdale resident Fred Newman who would, in 2018, set up the Ralla Ecological Garden CIC, known on social media as the Friends of the Ralla, with his partner Myriam Lahnite. Along with Tom Branton from Rice Lane City Farm they set about writing a plan to turn the area into a community garden.
“Like many people in the neighbourhood, I used to absolutely love spending time on the Ralla – before the locked gates went on and removed access the community,” Fred tells me in early 2019.
“For years, I used to stroll on the land, enjoying the peace and quiet and the amazing nature. If you spend half an hour down there in the summer amongst the trees and plants, you’re amazed when you come back up into the noise and the traffic. It’s truly a fabulous place and the whole community should be able to enjoy it.
Fred moved to Liverpool in 2012 after graduating from the University of Manchester and after “falling in love with the place” after a day trip to the city. Myriam, a graduate architect and urban designer, arrived in the city to do the final research for her MA in Urban Sociology, looking at how community groups can regenerate disused land. She too stayed on to take up voluntary work at Granby 4 Streets, Squash Nutrition (an arts and health initiative that promotes creative health education in Toxteth) and Homebaked. The pair live in Kirkdale, a short walk from the Ralla.
“Fred introduced me to the Ralla when I first came in Liverpool,” says Myriam. “He told me about the plans back in 2016 and how wonderful this place would be if it was tended and open to the locals. When you live in Kirkdale you’re also struck by the environment people live in, which isn’t healthy, unfortunately. So few amenities, so few green spaces as well.”
“We’re just a bunch of people who want to improve the place in which we live. It is as simple as that. It happens that the Ralla is there, beautiful, hidden and an incredible opportunity for Kirkdale.”
The pair began unofficially stewarding the land along with other locals, spending their free time on the space cleaning – work that is documented in their 114-page proposal document, Raising the Ralla, which outlines their vision for the site and details how the site meets the needs of the green policies and objectives of the City Region in terms of health and other local needs. It brings with it a wealth of supporting statements from organisations including Friends of the Earth, Kitty’s, Make Liverpool, Stanley Park CIC, The Rotunda, Rydal (Boxing) Gym and The National Wildflower Centre.
I felt impressed by the scope of the document and the vision it presented when I first read it, but I also sensed there was clearly a little tension in the air when Fred, Myriam and I first met in early 2019. I brought up the Scottie Press article about the Ralla and both Fred and Myriam visibly winced.
The article does not finish on what I would consider a high point, documenting a rival proposal for the land. Kirkdale councillor Joe Hanson, who was made responsible for managing site proposals by Joe Anderson, kicks off this section of the article with a quote that stands out like a sore thumb concerning the Ralla Ecological Garden CIC’s vision for the Ralla: “It’s not a new idea, it’s an old idea which in essence somebody has plagiarised.”
Tom, Fred and Myriam at the Ralla. Picture by Matt Thomas
When I met the pair again in late April, they had just received funding from the council for a high-street community clean-up fund.
“Although we can’t go on the Ralla we can be visible doing clean ups around the rest of Kirkdale which is just fabulous,” says Fred.
“It’s been so hard in the neighbourhood for us to be visible but now we can be out there with hi-vis jackets and stuff cleaning up the other incidental green spaces and handing out leaflets. I’ve been doing that myself and it’s wonderful when you’re just in a park with litter pickers and just introducing yourself to people. They thank you and tell you that it sounds great, because someone is actually doing something.
“We’re still delivering leaflets at the moment talking about the project and so from time to time we have the opportunity to meet people and introduce it. So far we haven’t received many bad comments and if they are bad they are just how the land is now – around antisocial behaviour and wondering what we want to do there – but when we start to talk about the plans and how it could be beneficial then people ‘good luck’. We never receive comments that oppose it.
“It’s only been when people think we’re the council and secondly when people think we’re going to be diverting funds from other things that Kirkdale needs. We want to keep pushing forward the idea that everything stays in the community; the land, the jobs and volunteering opportunities and the value created are all for the community and stay in the community. It just works.”
As it transpired that ‘old idea’ referred to by Cllr Hanson belonged to former pro boxer, Paul Smith, who was planning a ‘major new development’ called Kirkdale Canalside, which includes the Ralla site. The news broke in May 2019, to be followed by two days of public consultations.
Melrose Road, Kirkdale, Liverpool. Image by Matt Thomas.
The Kirkdale Canalside website outlines plans for new housing in partnership with and Liverpool City Council’s housing company, Liverpool Foundations Homes, housing for elderly people, green space and a new boxing academy. Councillor Joe Hanson is quoted in the article voicing his intention to ensure the consultation “reflects the needs and wishes of the residents of Kirkdale and that they decide the future of their community as we move forward.”
For Fred and Myriam the news came as a blow. For them Raising the Ralla was a project that had been developed through a long process of community engagement. Different visions for the Ralla reflect the dichotomy of genuinely community-led initiatives and top-down decision-making that risks repeating the same old mistakes.For Vidhya Alakeson, communities need to be active stakeholders in the areas in which they live.
“The role of community business is to enable people to work together and so you get the best of the new ideas coming together with people who understand the area and have invested in it.”
“The model only works because those people invest in the place that they end up in and are accepted by the people who are from that place and that’s the trick – it doesn’t become an insider-outsider thing, it becomes an inclusive thing.”
“In places like Liverpool, change is being driven from the bottom up. This is not about big injections of government or private-sector money. It’s about what happens when there is none of that available. When communities are given a bit of space, they create fantastic enterprises that respond directly to their own needs. That’s what we need to do everywhere, not just in the most deprived neighbourhoods.
“We need to give people space to rebuild their communities themselves.”
Written By Andrew Beattie; images by Matt Thomas