Centre at Threeways
I’d like to share with you a little of the story of what is believed to be the largest community asset transfer to take place in England.
It started for me on a bitter, icy day in January 2010 in Calderdale, West Yorkshire.
I’d been invited to tour some of the buildings that made up the former Ridings School in Halifax, notorious in earlier times as the “worst school in the country”. Inside it was cold, dark and generally uninviting, lit only by the bright sparks of enthusiasm coming from one of the local councillors, Barry Collins.
Part of our job at Locality is to inspire and embolden with stories of success. Barry had come to a couple of our national events and we’d clearly done a right number on him. “So Neil, do you think we can construct a successful community asset transfer project out of this?”, he asked me at the conclusion of the tour.
I considered for a couple of seconds the huge scale of the building, its physical and practical challenges, the relative lack of local community infrastructure to work with, and the national economic gloom which at that time was already deeper than the leaden Yorkshire skies that morning.
I can’t even remember what I managed to muster in reply, but whatever it was I’m pretty sure I didn’t blaze back Obama-style with “Yes we can!”.
You see I’ve worked on enough asset transfer projects to know how fiendish they can be, even the ones that appear straightforward on the surface. People who think asset transfer is a simple route to acquiring land and buildings (isn’t it just a case of handing over the keys, after all?) tend to get a nasty shock. And at 110,000 sq ft, three times the size of any asset transfer project we’d previously been involved in at Locality, the former Ridings School looked anything but straightforward.
Fortunately any misgivings which my response betrayed that day did not weaken Barry’s resolve, nor that of the other key local activists and politicians. And looking back, how could it have? This project was so badly needed, and the alternative of demolition and mothballing until an upturn in the housing market – for a while the assumed default position – was unthinkable. Even so I was pleasantly surprised when I was invited back to the table later in the year to work alongside officers and elected members from Calderdale Council, and Soo Nevison of Voluntary Action Calderdale (VAC).
Immediately I saw that the some of the ingredients for success were starting to fall into place.
Above all else, attending my first Project Board Meeting I met officers from legal, finance, asset management, economic regeneration and neighbourhood departments. Along with the politicians, all of the key decision makers (read: facilitators or potential blockers) were there. The uninitiated might be surprised to learn that this is very rarely the case – at least at such an early stage – in a project like this.
Our brief was to work closely with Soo at VAC to identify and work with interested activists from the neighbourhood to support the emergence of a new development trust, broad-based, resident-led, fit and ready to take on investment and long term ownership of the buildings and surrounding land.
I quickly realised how lucky I was to be involved in such a fantastic venture, particularly in light of my original lack of conviction.
The partnership with VAC proved excellent and has been sustained and has developed into many other areas since. And through that early work a group of residents quickly emerged to champion the scheme. A new development trust, Centre at Threeways (Threeways for short) was formed.
I’ll now cut a very long and involved story short.
Since the formation of the trust, momentum has been building, and this has become more rapid thanks to the injection in 2012 of development capital from the Investment and Contract Readiness Fund and Key Fund. This investment has in part helped to secure the crucial involvement of Colin Davies, who has brought every bit of his considerable community asset development experience over many years in Sheffield.
The transfer process was completed and the building will finally belonged to Threeways.
As William Moffat, founder trustee and key driving force behind the project said at a recent Board meeting, “it feels as though finally, after years of work, we’re almost at the start!”.
For as anyone who has completed an asset transfer project knows, transfer marks the start of a journey, not the end. But even though we are only at the start, after three and a bit years of campaigning, planning, benchmarking, forecasting, engaging, consulting, revising, rethinking, fundraising, and generally huge amounts of effort you’ll understand I’m sure if Threeways, and all involved in this amazing project, pause for just a moment today to do a bit of celebrating.
Written by Neil Berry
Director of Services at Locality.