Community Land Transfers and Social Enterprise

Examples of significant successes in community land transfers on a meaningful scale are not plentiful in the UK. However there is one story of note that provides a template for communities that wish to take a very active role in the physical fabric of their high streets and town centres, particularly in this age of 'localism'

According to the opening page of their website, Coin St - Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) ‘is a social enterprise and development trust which seeks to make London's South Bank a better place in which to live, to work and to visit. Since 1984 CSCB has transformed a largely derelict 13 acre site into a thriving mixed use neighbourhood’.

Coin Street Community Builders, is a not-for-profit development trust which since 1984 has had the responsibility for regenerating 13 acres of prime real estate on London’s South Bank, largely as a result of its high visibility. Part of the attention however derives from how it came into existence - the outcome of a high-profile and ultimately successful community-based campaign against office development on the site but in favour of social housing and parks.

The two highly contrasting visions were subject to two public enquiries however by 1983 the action group had won the support of the GLC and both local authorities and so the commercial developers sold their landholdings to the GLC who the following year - facing abolition themselves – sold the land on to Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB), a new incorporated company limited by guarantee. The GLC created restrictive covenants on the site curtailing its commercial development value enabling the selling price to be limited to the modest amount of £1m which CSCB borrowed partly from the GLC itself and partly from Greater London Enterprise Board.

Thereafter CSCB had to find the money needed to develop the land and service its borrowings. Its first move was to negotiate temporary car-parking contracts on part of the site. By 1988, the first housing co-operative, Mulberry, had been opened and the former Gabriel’s Wharf building converted temporarily into shops and business units. The Thames-side path and a small park had also been created. A second housing development, Palm, was finished in 1994 and further housing (Redwood Co-op) in the Oxo Tower opened in 1995. The commercial elements in the Oxo Tower opened a year later. The latest housing co-op, Iroko, a new-build development made up of 59 social housing units (including houses, maisonettes and small flats, with car parking and a communal garden) opened in 2001.

After two decades the development of Coin Street’s thirteen acres is by no means nearly complete, though much has already been done. Some might consider this slow progress. One of the reasons for the slow overall process of redevelopment was the choice to undertake the commercial development of the Oxo Tower alone, rather than in partnership with others described as ‘particularly significant’ as at £20m the scheme was on a much larger scale than earlier achievements. Although partners were courted none could be found that would give the community a veto on commercial lettings which was crticial to the social and community vision of the overarching organisation. This is because most commercial developers put seek to build as cheaply as possible, let it as quickly as possible and then to sell off the rental stream which is an approach that is likely to be at odds with most social enterprises.

Raising the capital to develop the Oxo site was not straightforward. CSCB approached thirty banks without success before finally finding initial capital of around £2m from a merchant bank, secured on the organisation’s overall asset base. Oxo Tower is increasingly on the tourist map of London which to some might suggest a certain contradiction with the original community aims, which was after all to defend a predominantly working-class corner of central London from large-scale commercial development. However as Iain Tuckett, Development Director of CSCB puts it ‘it’s not an irony that the restaurants are there, it’s a deliberate economic strategy. One of the great failings of social enterprises is to confuse what your social objectives are with your economic requirements… unless as a social enterprise you are willing to cater for people with money, if you’re only going to cater for people in poverty, you will never get to viability. Any strategy that is sustainable has got to have something which brings in money and recycles it — it’s a Robin Hood approach’.

CSCB realised very early on that successful commercial ventures could enable the organisation to meet its social and community objectives more easily. ‘From our point of view, getting Harvey Nicks was a huge victory, because it was the first substantial commercial non-office investment in this area. We didn’t want to get involved in running a load of businesses, we wanted to get the economy right so that private firms were willing to do business in the area.

CSCB has formalised its links with large employers in the immediate area by taking a lead in creating the South Bank Employers Group (SBEG). This body now has eighteen member organisations, including major companies based in the area such as Shell, IBM as well as the Royal National Theatre, South Bank Centre, the London Eye and CSCB itself. With an annual turnover of £2m partly from members’ subscriptions and partly from grant funding, SBEG has been active in environmental improvements to the area, in developing transport links and in working with local schools to improve their facilities. SBEG employs a small team of staff who are based in CSCB’s offices and work closely with CSCB.

CSCB is only one element in the broader Coin Street picture. Closely linked in practice with CSCB although legally an autonomous organisation is Coin Street Secondary Housing Co-operative (CSS), a housing association which is registered with the Housing Corporation as a social landlord. Since CSCB is ineligible for charitable status, four registered charities have also been established to undertake those activities which meet charitable objectives. This enables the charities to fundraise autonomously from CSCB and it also allows CSCB to benefit from Gift Aid relief when it makes contributions to their work. The separate housing association CSS was established in 1987, a necessary step to access Housing Corporation finance which would not otherwise have been available. CSS undertakes the housing developments and then grants short-term leases to each of the individual housing co-operatives established. The co-operatives are themselves responsible for the day-to-day management of their own properties, including maintenance and lettings. They also have the option of using CSS’s services on a paid basis for other management services. CSS remains responsible for structural and cyclical repairs.

The primary co-operatives, of which there are four, are fully mutual, which ensures that tenants do not have the option of a right to buy their properties. It is a condition of taking up a tenancy and joining the co-operative that people attend a training programme, typically eleven three-hour sessions to pass on the essential information needed to run a co-op and to develop communication and group working skills. Members meet quarterly in General Meetings, and also elect a fifteen person management committee to manage the day-to-day business of the co-op.

The housing developments, although legally separate from CSCB, CSS can benefit from being part of the overall Coin Street development initiative. High housing standards desired were only achieved through CSCB effectively cross-subsidising the overall costs from its other, broader, activities including its commercial interests.

A final element to the overall Coin Street structure is that CSCB has created a wholly owned subsidiary, South Bank Management Services Ltd, which manages the Oxo Tower, Gabriel’s Wharf, the public park (Bernie Spain Gardens) and the river frontage. This includes collecting rents and service charges, gardening and marketing services. The Coin Street project employs approximately 35 full-time staff. One institution which Coin Street has developed has been the forward-planning weekends, held every year usually in Brighton, to which both Board members and staff members are invited. These provide an opportunity to discuss the future overall shape of the venture, and for Directors and staff to socialise together. Typically, about fifty people attend these events.

Structuring the organisation to ensure it remains close to its roots and accountable to the community from which it emerged was a challenge. One approach rejected was to arrange for local representative bodies to have a direct input into the organisation’s management. In CSCB’s case, this could have been achieved by formalising the links with community organisations however it would have been too easy for parties attracted by the development opportunities to have taken over the community organisations, as a way of getting control of CSCB.

CSCB has also chosen not to use the possibilities inherent in the structure of a company limited by guarantee to build up a wider membership base of individuals supporting the initiative. Importantly, CSCB’s rules do state that all members must be local residents, and its Board is therefore drawn from the immediate neighbourhood. (The Board has chosen to co-opt a small number of other people, with particular legal, financial and marketing expertise).

There are formal and legal channels of accountability, including those to bodies such as the Housing Corporation, local authorities, and the commercial funders who have invested in CSCB and its projects. There are also formal relationships with each of the housing co-operatives, to which CSCB leases the residential properties it builds.But there are also more informal ways in which CSCB remains accountable for its actions. The development of the housing co-ops, which ultimately could provide homes for more than 1300 people, has created a constituency with a keen interest in CSCB’s performance. "If people on one of our co-ops are unhappy, that’s a real problem for us too, not just because we’ll have Board members who are from that co-op. We call ourselves ‘community builders’ and we thought very carefully about that phrase — we are trying to build a community that works. At the end of the day if what we do isn’t working we have invested that amount of time that we’re going to try to fix it. We’re very close to the ground in that respect," Iain Tuckett says.

CSCB also has a record of setting up independent mechanisms (such as the South Bank Forum for local residents, and the South Bank Employers’ Group) to help build a shared community vision and to provide a means of implementing it. CSCB also tries to encourage new local community organisations (one example is FamilyLinks, a group aiming to meet the needs of families and young people). The charitable trusts provide a route which allows CSCB to part-fund these initiatives.

This is an abridged version of an article by Andrew Bibby –see http://www.andrewbibby.com/socialenterprise/coin-street.html.