If you build it, they will come: Lessons from the Par Bay learning journey

“A pub doesn’t belong to a company. Even if you’ve had the paperwork done, and it’s been in the same name for 100 years, it’s just temporary ownership – it always belongs to the community. It’s a public house.”

That’s the lesson I learnt from Iain, the manager of the Bevy community pub in Brighton, on the learning journey in Par Bay, Cornwall. Whether it is a hall, a bookshop, a garden or a running track, these are all community assets, and they belong to the people who use them. Our conversation over tea and cake helped ground me in the ethos of the work that was happening in the space all around us.

I visited the town along with prospective and current UnLtd award winners from around the UK, like Iain, who wanted to learn how to create and grow sustainable businesses. One group had travelled from as far as Dundee to see what the community of entrepreneurs in Cornwall are doing.

Par Bay is a Big Local area, one of 19 such places in which UnLtd and Local Trust work together to support enterprising people, growing and starting businesses that benefit their community. We were treated to a tour of the ventures in this area including a community garden, a community owned running track, a recycled paint shop, and a hall named Cornubia that was the hub for our day - all within five minutes walk of each other!

Social entrepreneurs having tea in Cornubia hall

"Testing to destruction"
 

The Cornubia building was originally an auction hall, and then later a tea dance space, but when the Par Bay Community Trust bought it there was a lot of work that needed doing - literally a new floor and ceiling.

What a lot of community projects get wrong is jumping in with a bright idea, but not matching that to the needs of the local people. Sonia, the chair of Par Big Local, told us that the group had done a lot of consultation in advance to decide what to do with the space,

“You have to go where people are, not expect them to come to you.”

They decided to take a bus around, not demanding that they give you feedback on 3pm on a Tuesday.

Cornubia opened before it was officially finished - electricity, a toilet, and an Internet connection was enough - and that choice turned out to be the right one, to keep on consulting. Not having the space “finished” allowed flexibility and a willingness to keep on changing. What seems like a weakness becomes a strength.

The space then brought, volunteers, projects, food, conversations and lessons about what people really need. Even the placement of the toilet must be changed - the community found one group needed a bathroom that is not accessible by anyone else whilst they meet.

The group of social entrepreneurs all agreed that you must consult, involve, and then you do it all over again and again.

As we sat together sharing stories there was a strong encouragement from the group to each other to take the plunge, and learn along the way, and I could see the energy sparking. You can’t always wait to have everything perfect, so long as you are always going to keep learning.

What I found particularly inspiring about the ethos of Cornubia is knowing who they are, and having a clear purpose is absolutely key to their success. They are also not accepting anything that could be possible in a large open space – tap dancing and badminton are right out. Not because those things aren’t valuable, but because they are not part of its mission. Cornubia focuses on three things: Community, Creativity, and Enterprise. As a social enterprise itself it is serving as a workspace and hub to grow more of the same, and encourage creative ventures in the area.

The traditional model in our society is that similar businesses compete for customers and money. Even with social businesses, the competitive drive can become consuming and distract from the real purpose they intended. By knowing exactly what they do and sticking to it, Cornubia allows networks of similar spaces to work together, and they then direct different opportunities to others. Their goal is to create sustainability for all the social ventures - which ultimately puts them in a position of power that can lead to policy change.
 

Woman picking tomatoes at a community garden

What is entrepreneurship?

As well as the building, the social entrepreneurs in Par have put together an amazing community garden, built on the grounds of a burnt-down home. Sonia spoke to us about the trials of making it all come to life. There was some amazing ingenuity and networking involved, like building the raised planters out of discarded decking at the nearby caravan park. The community run sports ground, Par Track, is also managed by a group of volunteers, and they are currently in the process of sourcing community shares to fund improvements for the site.

Discovering all of these ‘space-based’ ventures was fascinating. I spoke to Tiggy and Stella who manage Locus Walthamstow, a cafe and co-working space about what inspired them. Stella said:


“I had so many ideas, but I realised I couldn’t do all of them, so I could create space for other people to do it.”


They found they could help make many more ideas come to life than they could achieve on their own. Just like in Cornubia, social enterprise creates more social enterprise.

I came away really adjusting my understanding of entrepreneurship from men in suits with a big wads of investment capital to the person who sees the specific needs of their community, and gets it done with hustling, determination and continuous questions.

Close up of watering can in community garden

 

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