People power in the Potteries

“There’s a real sense of community and collaboration between us all, and despite the challenges we face in this area, I’m confident we can succeed.”

Despite the snow and freezing temperatures in what felt like the real start of winter, Mike Riddell, succinctly summed up the positive atmosphere during the Stoke-on-Trent Learning Journey, taking place in the area on 22 and 23 January.

Mike is a director of Hometown Plus, a firm which seeks to restore prosperity to left behind areas. He is also the founder of Countercoin, a scheme that rewards voluntary work with Countercoins, which volunteers can then redeem as part or full payment for certain products or services from other local businesses. It enables people who for various reasons might be out of work to volunteer in their community and learn, develop or refresh their skills.

"The scheme works like a supermarket Clubcard,” explains Mike. “But rather than customers getting points for shopping, we reward volunteers with Countercoin tokens for contributing to the community.”

Mike Riddell, director of Hometown Plus

Like many other towns and cities across the UK that were made famous by their roles in the industrial revolution, Stoke and neighbouring town Newcastle-under-Lyme have struggled to develop a new sense of identity since the pottery industry declined in the 1960s. And now, after years of austerity, limited investment, and the rapid rise of online shopping, its retail landscape is struggling. The Countercoin regeneration project is one project aiming to turn the tide.

One of the places where large numbers of local people are coming back into Newcastle's town centre is Cultural Squatters, a community café in the York Centre run by Narina Stead. Open since April 2018, it serves good quality home-cooked food at affordable prices and has quickly become an important hub in the local community. Volunteers do all cooking, cleaning, waiting tables and organise a growing programme of events. Some are retired, some are long-term unemployed, others have learning or physical disabilities, and some are young people looking to gain experience. All of the 37 volunteers have a bespoke training and development plan and can undertake accredited training courses.

“For me the key objective is to upskill the volunteers”, says Narina. “Since we opened, nine of them have moved on into paid jobs. They’re all managing to sustain their roles which is brilliant because some of them were out of work for a long time when they began volunteering with us.”

The café serves as our base for the Stoke-on-Trent Learning Journey event, one of several similar events that UnLtd run across the country to give social entrepreneurs the opportunity to meet others from the local area that are working to address similar challenges. These events are a great way for entrepreneurs to learn from each other, form a community network and plan collaborations in the future. We were able to organise this one thanks to the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, which is where funding for the wider programme has come from. It's all part of our Resilient Communities work which seeks to provide dedicated support to help enterprising people transform the places where they live.

On the first day of the event, all participants took part in an exercise to consider what they wanted to gain from being part of the Learning Journey. There was a common theme across the group, all were keen to learn from others how they had managed to overcome some of the challenges they have faced in starting up their new social ventures. The exercise served as a good ice breaker and introduction, before the group ate dinner together and shared stories of inspiration.

On day two, after a hearty breakfast at Cultural Squatters, we headed to Stoke to take a narrow-boat tour of the Potteries, and visited Middleport Pottery, home of Burleigh. As we discovered how the industrialists of the 19th Century made the area prosperous and vibrant, it was impossible not to notice the impact of the industry’s post-war decline on the area. There are ambitious plans for redevelopment, with a new Ceramic Valley in the planning stages, and the reopening of one of the canal’s branch lines to Burslem.

The canal-side is one of the locations where Jake Cliffe’s venture, Human-Nature Escapes, operates. Jake set it up at the end of 2015 after he experienced a breakdown while working as a senior manager in the engineering industry. He found that getting out into the natural environment for walks, trying other ‘green’ exercise such as mountain biking and Nordic walking, and doing creative activities like nature photography and writing poetry had a profoundly positive impact on his recovery.

Now, these activities form a large part of Human-Nature’s range of wellbeing activities, which seek to alleviate workplace stress and anxiety by providing opportunities for people to improve their wellbeing through nature, art and green exercise.

Learning Journey participants at cultural squatters

One of Jake’s greatest challenges over the last year or so has been securing further funding, to help him scale his venture.

He says: “I’ve had an award from UnLtd, and a similar sized one from another funder, which have been really helpful in getting things off the ground and buy essential equipment. However, it’s extremely difficult to secure funding at the next level that you need to secure a base to work from, and to pay yourself and support workers. When I speak to other social entrepreneurs it’s often the same for them.”  

As we made our way back to Cultural Squatters for the final session of the day, to reflect on what we had learned and would aim to do next, it was great to see participants making plans to meet up and keep working together in the future. It was no surprise to hear that sourcing funding and making money were key challenges across the group. Yet there was a real sense of drive, positivity and community from them all, united in their desire to make a lasting difference in their local area.

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