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Stop the Rot

The Mule | 10.08.2009 17:33 | Free Spaces

As the recession grinds on, and property development judders to a stop, citizens propose a rethink of how we use our spaces.

Stories abound in the media of foundations dug when times were better and developers cocky, which are now filling with city drizzle. It’s hard not to notice that the hoardings advertising luxury apartments have had no obvious sign of activity taking place behind them for a while.

Horror stories do the rounds, telling of local labourers turning up to work only to find the site padlocked and those accountable gone. Mule’s last edition reported on the inactivity at Manchester’s flagship £220m regeneration scheme, New Islington.

Several groups in Manchester are pushing for a re-think into how we use all those spaces that are not so new and shiny, that don’t get as much attention.

Sustainable Neighbourhoods Action Group (SNAG) and The Environment Network For Manchester (EN4M) have recently launched their Hug A Hovel campaign, set to breathe new life into the city’s vacant buildings by renting them out to grassroots and community groups at affordable rates, creating ‘spaces which are more affordable, more flexible, more hugged’.

Inexpensive rent in return for general maintenance of the building would undoubtedly be a sure-fire way in which to regenerate the city’s crumbling wrecks, giving ownership to groups who in turn would ensure their ‘hovels’ are put to good use once again.

Other groups are embarking on alternative courses of action. Space Invaders is a Manchester-based collective that formed two years ago in response to a call for the reclamation of unused spaces. Cities across the UK and further afield mobilised, and Manchester activists squatted a number of buildings in and around the city. These became the scene of a part-party, part-education programme, highlighting the sheer number of disused buildings.

“It’s important that we have spaces where the limits aren’t dictated to you by the police or the council,” Steph from Space Invaders explains, “spaces that have non-authoritarian forms of organisation, where we can create, resist, share ideas and escape the gentrification of the city.”

And it seems that the recession is adding to this movement.

“There are people who are squatting now because they don’t have any choice. They’re not making a statement politically,” she adds.

The group behind The Chapel Social Centre are also putting an unused space to good use. Platt Chapel on the edge of Fallowfield lay empty for a number of years, until a group of students made enquiries and began to rent the building from its current owner, transforming it into an independent social space for use by the community. A registered Community Interest Company, The Chapel now offers workshop and gallery space, a volunteer-run café, music and theatre rehearsal space and a lively programme of arts and club nights.

“There’s a real lack of space which is solely not-for-profit, especially in the areas where students live,” says Ben Cheetham, one of the people behind The Chapel’s new lease of life. “We need places for people to go to that aren’t just pubs or bars.”

However, for many of these projects, finance is a struggle.

“We’re looking at grants,” adds Rick Sims, another of The Chapel’s working group, “as the building itself needs a huge amount of work doing to it. The club nights help pay the rent, but they’re pretty irregular.”

Manchester City Council has recognised the importance of utilising the city’s properties and its positive impact on neighbourhoods, calling for a ‘redevelopment or reuse of under-utilised buildings to enhance the physical and social character of the area’ in this year’s Climate Change Call To Action document. But there has been little in the way of support, even though, as activists are quick to point out, many of the thousands of buildings that stand empty in Manchester are owned by the council itself.

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