For many people in the West Country, real life is a long way from the rural or coastal idyll portrayed by the tourism industry or the media. The percentage of children living in poverty has been climbing across the region and high unemployment, low-paid work and a cycle of deprivation are often hallmarks of many seaside towns.
But enough with the gloom because, in spite of the difficult prospects (made tougher by Covid-19 and Brexit), there are uplifting stories to be told of enterprising individuals, determined to make a difference.
Two such people are Hannah Rowan-Dumont and Anna Rowan-Dunstan, the creators of an exciting new community initiative in Paignton. I chatted with the self-effacing Hannah to tease out the back story behind the workers’ co-operative that will launch in a disused supermarket as ‘Make Borrow Mend’.
The concept is a simple one: a community space where people can get things fixed or learn to fix them, swap toys, refurbish bikes, and borrow tools and equipment that would normally beyond their means etc.
Part of the duo’s inspiration came from the Repair Café in Paignton run on a monthly basis by Torbay Climate Action until Covid-19 put everything on hold. But a monthly event in a changing venue isn’t enough to impact meaningfully on people’s lives and the pair realised that a fixed location, with good access for families and mobility scooter and wheelchair users, would make all the difference.
Everyone in Paignton was aware that the 1,000 square metre Crossway site was being run down. It had become a real eyesore – a virtually empty shopping centre whose shabbiness was only doing damage to the town centre’s image and reputation. The site had been zoned for redevelopment for some time, but the owner, Gaelic Investments, had held onto the property and done nothing with it. In September last year, Torbay Council voted to start compulsory purchase proceedings and to implement plans to turn the down-at-heel, two-storey concrete building into low-cost living above and new retail below. The whole process was set to take eighteen months.
In the meantime, it lay empty, with the Co-op as the sole leaseholder. Determined to find a site for their project, Anna followed that simple adage that ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ and wrote to the Co-op, setting out their proposal to turn the neglected building into a community resource. Unsurprisingly, given the Co-op’s history and ethical stance, they really bought into the idea, agreeing to pay for the space for as long as Make Borrow Mend are able to use it before the redevelopment starts. Hannah reckons they have at least a year, maybe longer. A crowdfunder, once they are installed, will help to pay for the running costs (heating and lighting for such a large space won’t be cheap) and to ensure that they are in a position to secure a more permanent home in due course.
Hannah’s focus is on doing things that are ‘environmentally interesting but on a people scale’. Behind the project is her academic training as an anthropologist and her personal experience of the interplay between environmental and economic forces. She talks about the challenges for people who want to do what’s right by the planet, but are forced to buy cheap things that break or wear out because they simply don’t have the money to invest in more durable goods. She can envision the very real difference it will make for people to be able to hire things cheaply or benefit from shared access or ownership.
She and Anna have spent the last 11 months collecting and repairing sewing machines and they plan to have workstations where people can be taught how to use them or can work on mending and making projects without having to come up with the outlay for their own machine.
Refurbishing, repairing and recycling/upcycling will all meet an environmental agenda, but also translate into the opportunity to actually make some money that they can plough back into the project. An Etsy shop, for example, will enable them to sell upcycled items, boosting what they are doing in Paignton beyond the confines of the town and perhaps inspiring others to follow suit.
The borrow shop, tool shed workshop space, textile upcycling studio and PAT testing service are all great ideas that really can’t fail. Hannah is even going on a tool sharpening course so that she can offer that, too. However, I think what really appeals to me is that what the women are doing has the potential to impact on a number of social issues that come partly from poverty, but which are exacerbated by everyday living – loneliness, a sense of disempowerment and isolation and an absence of choice.
Hannah emphasises the importance for her of community and working together as a team so that, for example, co-workers can operate flexibly to accommodate each other’s childcare or elderly care responsibilities. The project will also major on show-casing skills that are unappreciated, undervalued or just plain ignored. She cites the example of her own father, a retired marine engineer, who relies on his mobility scooter to get about. His situation has made her aware that a sense of isolation can ‘just’ be the result of the practical impossibility of accessing many of Paignton’s buildings because of their steps. It’s hard to be a participant of you are denied access by a step, but at Make Borrow Mend, he and others, young and old, can be in a space where they can share their knowledge, boost their own self-esteem and enjoy the company of others, lifting each other out of damaging loneliness and bridging the generational divide.
It sounds as if Make Borrow Mend is going to be an exciting, rewarding place to be and Hannah and Anna have done something really amazing in getting this off the ground in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. Give them a few weeks to get completely set up (I suspect that will be a herculean task in itself) and look out for the official opening.
This is an idea that deserves to be copied up and down the land. Feel inspired?