Hitting the right note in York

Tang hall is one of the 19 areas where UnLtd is offering funding and support over the next three years thanks to a partnership with Local Trust. The areas span a wide range of communities, including rural areas, new towns, market towns, suburbs and cities.

Tang Hall Smart, located in York’s Tang Hall suburb, stepped in to fill the vacuum created by chronic funding cuts and the effect those measures had on the local community.

Based at the Centre@Burnholme in Tang Hall, the community interest company delivers clubs, classes and activities to the local neighbourhood and the wider York area. At its heart is music, but as the business grows, the level of provision and the ways in which staff and volunteers work with the community is widening.

Sue, founder of Tang Hall Smart, and the people she works with in Tang Hall in York.

The enterprise was set up in 2014 by Sue Williamson - someone who was better placed than many to recognise the needs of Tang Hall - an area with unique social challenges in York and one of the 19 Big Local areas UnLtd is supporting in partnership with the Local Trust. Sue is a former English, Music and special educational needs teacher at Burnholme Community College, and over two decades has worked with hundreds of young people in the area, many of whom came from challenging backgrounds.

Places like Tang Hall, where flesh has been cut from the bone for years, need a vibrant community centre more than most, according to Sue. 

It’s areas like this that UnLtd and Local Trust are keen to support local people to find local solutions in. Matt Leach, Local Trust’s Chief Executive, said: “Residents in Big Local areas have a brilliant track record of finding imaginative ways to meet local needs. We’re renewing our partnership with UnLtd and offering further support to Big Local areas that are harnessing local entrepreneurial spirit to explore and develop new social enterprises.”

“So many services have been stripped away,” Sue says. “People have got to have something otherwise they just become lonely. This is true for someone aged 25 who has a learning disability and is leaving their statutory education and then are faced with going out for coffee twice a week with a support worker. To have gone from full education to that is horrible and something needs to be there to replace it.

“But it's just as horrible for a single person in their seventies who hasn't got much to do. It's a place where people can go and do something and be someone - it really makes life more exciting. We're bucking the trend.”

When Burnholme Community College closed in 2014, despite years of campaigning by locals, Sue was faced with a decision about her own career. More importantly, Sue was aware that another support network was being taken away from a neighbourhood which had already lost its primary school, working men’s club, youth club and adult education centre.

“It was devastating,” says Sue. “It was a small community school and the nature of the kids that came was such that they tended to have complex needs. There were a very high proportion on the special needs register and child protection register. These were difficult kids who could be seen as having challenging behaviour but because it was a small school and so friendly, our work with them was good.”

Rather than teach elsewhere, Sue decided she wanted to continue to work in the community. After learning more about the support UnLtd offers, she began running seven different clubs, which were attended by about 60 people. She also had a small contract with a nearby special school. However it was an UnLtd residential course, two day courses UnLtd runs to support social entrepreneurs, which really focused her vision and helped develop her business idea.

“It blew my mind it got me thinking about exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “I started to think about social impact and having a business model, because I wasn't making any money back then.”

Sue recognises the importance of turning a profit, it means there’s more to reinvest in Tang Hall Smart. “I like making money,” she says proudly. “But I don’t really like making it for myself.”

A woman at Tang Hall Smart, a social venture that uses music to support the local neighbourhood

Her business model is now proving to be lucrative. Tang Hall Smart has accessed plenty of grants over the years, but it has never needed a loan. The business is fully solvent with turnover doubling every year since opening. The company has high reserves and the small contract she initially had with the special school has quadrupled in size. Sue employs seven staff as well as a handful of sessional workers. A big volunteer base further supports the work they do.

The sessions are varied, but many are aimed at two particular groups - people with learning difficulties and adults with multiple problems like homelessness and addiction.

"These are really complicated people with entrenched problems,” says Sue. “They are the people that nobody else wants to work with."

A man at a Tang Hall Smart session in York, a social venture that uses music and arts to support the local neighbourhood

Some of the staff members are former participants, who progressed to volunteers and sessional workers before taking on a full-time role. Sue thinks one such staff member, who struggled with homelessness and substance misuse prior to engaging with Tang Hall Smart, may not be alive were it not for the energy his new job has given him.

"He’s my music director now and he’s brilliant,” she says. “Before he worked with us he sobered up. All that talent and potential was there, but he needed a lot of structure and support to get that out of him."

The company has big plans for the future, starting with the opening of a new community centre later this year. From there, Sue plans to roll out even more classes and sessions, as well as increase the outreach work the organisation carries out. Then there’s the record label, which is used to promote and distribute the music being made by those attending Tang Hall Smart.

"We want the record label to grow and become respected in its own right, without having sympathy built into it," says Sue.

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