A return visit to the Building Bloqs initiative – in a suburb best known for stabbings and mini-riots – shows what social enterprises can do with proper support
Journalists are like pigeons: they all flock at once to the same feeding ground, then fly off together, leaving behind only their indelible crap. Venal bankers, Afghanistan, the northern powerhouse … stories are hot until they are most decidedly not, and, unlike Star Wars, the readers never get a sequel.
I always hoped to revisit Building Bloqs – I just didn’t know if it would still be standing. When I wrote at the start of 2015 about the big orange shed plonked by a canal, it was with an anxious excitement. In Edmonton, a suburb of north London normally in the headlines for yet another stabbing or mini-riot, here was a bit of good news. In an industrial hub where the factories had long ago turned into warehouses and gigantic superstores offering low-wage jobs, here were people once again actually making something.
Everyone who came across Building Bloqs loved it – loved what it symbolised and the young men who’d charged into setting it up. Yet when I first dropped by, it was close to shutting down. Its status as a new social enterprise – in which any profits were reinvested back into the business – meant that the banks wouldn’t lend and the venture capitalists wouldn’t invest. The novelty of a makerspace in their backyard – freelancers in metal and wood and plastic hiring benches by the day and sharing workshop kit and knowhow – confused Enfield council, who couldn’t work out how best to help.
The roof had a giant gash, the place was freezing, the directors were working without pay till 10 at night and then crashing on friends’ sofas. I had a row with a well-intentioned local councillor over what else he and his colleagues should be doing, filed a column that read more like a distress flare, and went away fearing the worst.
Well, as they say on Facebook posts, you won’t believe what happened next. First, mail began pouring in from Guardian readers asking how they could help. Some offered loans. One couple just gave £5,000. “That made the difference between Building Bloqs staying open or not,” remembers Al Parra, a co-director. More politicians popped in, including the Green party leader, Natalie Bennett, and council officials sent over details of available grants.
When I visited last Thursday, Building Bloqs was not only intact – it was thriving. The number of members has more than doubled to 150 since last January, and well over 80 of these would count as going concerns. Imagine that: more than 80 households now self-sufficient in a local economy kept afloat by tax credits.
I was told about a member who was robbed of his livelihood by the 2009 recession, but had been able to get back into business through the low overheads offered by Building Bloqs – and was now once again supporting his wife and child. There’s new kit, and a textile studio is about to open. The directors now have their own places to stay. Just last summer Parra had this skinny, haunted look – as if his landlords were just behind him. Not anymore. “We’re considerably less stressed, sometimes even happy,” he says.
Why the big change? It comes down to a fascinating and instructive tale. Last year, at exactly the point Parra and his colleagues were peering at the final credits, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, launched a £20m London regeneration fund. In Borisland, regeneration mainly means knocking down council housing to be replaced with impossibly expensive new flats. But the mayor’s new fund directs public money to workspaces, artists’ studios and public markets. In other words, those things that stop the city from turning into a sprawl of glass boxes and overpriced pulled-pork baguettes.
The fund’s criteria might have been custom-made for things like Building Bloqs. But at first the chaps from the council didn’t know what to do with the men in the shed. They knew they could run a decent caff – so maybe they’d like to do that at one of Enfield’s new housing developments? Then, later, came the notion that the civic centre would apply for Boris money to set up its own makerspace and get the directors to run it. To which the Building Bloqs gang politely responded that they hadn’t risked their shirts to set up a social enterprise in order to become municipal employees. Finally, the two sides partnered up.
This January, Boris was picked up from the local station by Parra in his ancient Skoda with jammed doors and no hubcaps. Retinue in tow, the mayor toured the site – and then announced that Building Bloqs had won £1.3m, to be doubled by the council. By next summer, they should have moved across the canal to a shed four times bigger, making them the biggest makerspace in Europe.
What does this story tell us? First off, credit to Enfield council for breaking away from its old habits of thinking and taking the risk of coupling up with a young social enterprise. But second, the fate of a business like Building Bloqs is too precious to be left to award ceremonies and chance.
In London a house earns more in two days than the average worker in a week
What would it cost the multibillion-pound banks to pool some of their own money into a fund to lend to other social enterprises? Why doesn’t the Ikea just opposite Building Bloqs use its vast lobby to inform shoppers of all the local artisans who can customise their kitchens? Wouldn’t it be great if councils put together registers of residents with expertise in book-keeping, marketing and legal advice, who might enjoy doing some pro bono work for outfits like Building Bloqs?
Five years ago George Osborne spoke of a Britain “carried aloft by the march of the makers,” and he proclaimed that this “is how we will create jobs and support families; put fuel into the tank of the British economy”. It made lovely copy for a chancellor seeking headlines for his budget, but in the intervening years the UK has continued haemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, from Redcar to Port Talbot.
In London, a house earns more in two days than the average worker earns in a week. If Britain is to become more than a rentier economy, speculating on property and backing the same old horses, it badly needs more experiments like Building Bloqs. But we also have to learn how to foster those experiments so fewer of them fail unnecessarily.