Andrew Bibby


 

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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Coin Street - case study

This case study was originally written as teaching material for study by post-graduate students undertaking the University of East London's masters degree course in social enterprise. Important: Please note that the information contained in the case study may now no longer be fully up-to-date.

The progress of Coin Street Community Builders, the not-for-profit development trust which since 1984 has had the responsibility for regenerating 13 acres of prime real estate on London’s South Bank, has attracted considerable attention over the years.

Partly this is simply because of Coin Street’s high geographical visibility. The site runs from Waterloo Bridge almost to Blackfriars Bridge, abutting the Royal National Theatre on one side and almost reaching the old Bankside power station, now transformed into the Tate Modern gallery, on the other. Coin Street Community Builders’ redevelopment of the former riverside Stamford Wharf has led to the creation of an icon for the whole regeneration project, in the shape of the renovated Oxo Tower.

However, the attention paid to Coin Street Community Builders is also partly the result of how it came into existence, as the outcome of a high-profile and ultimately successful community-based campaign against commercial office development on the site. There is thus a particular interest in exploring how — and, of course, whether — an action group brought together to fight a particular campaign can cope subsequently as the task becomes one of developing and managing a potentially highly valuable resource — in the process, dealing with the responsibilities of undertaking commercial property development, building new housing stock, managing retail developments, and much more.

One question therefore is whether the original vision is sufficiently strong, and the original activists sufficiently skilled, to survive the inevitable compromises in this process. Another is how a project with its roots in a local community can remain accountable to that community.

Coin Street — a brief history

 

The Coin Street area straddles the two London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, an area which in times past had been used for riverside wharfs, industry and housing. By the 1970s much of the area had become derelict, with the land partly owned by the Greater London Council and partly by private companies. It was an obvious target for developers, who planned major office developments for the site.

However, these proposals were strongly resisted by local residents, who in 1977 formed a Coin Street Action Group and went on to draw up rival plans for the site, focusing primarily on social housing and parks. The two highly contrasting visions were subject to two public enquiries with eventually both development plans approved by the Secretary of State. However by this time, 1983, the action group had won the support of the GLC and both local authorities, and, faced with mounting opposition to their plans, the commercial developers sold their landholdings to the GLC. The following year the GLC, now facing abolition, sold the land on to Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB), a new incorporated company limited by guarantee which had been established by Coin Street campaigners. Because the GLC created restrictive covenants on the site curtailing its commercial development value, the selling price was limited to the modest amount of £1m. CSCB borrowed this partly from the GLC itself and partly from Greater London Enterprise Board, on standard terms.

Having acquired the site over which the community had fought so tenaciously, CSCB had to find the money needed to develop the land and service its borrowings. Its immediate move, for example, was to negotiate temporary carparking contracts on part of the site. By 1988, the first housing co-operative, Mulberry, had been opened and the former Gabriel’s Wharf building converted temporarily into shops and business units. The Thames-side path and a small park had also been created. A second housing development, Palm, was finished in 1994 and further housing (Redwood Co-op) in the Oxo Tower opened in 1995. The commercial elements in the Oxo Tower opened a year later. The latest housing co-op, Iroko, a new-build development made up of 59 social housing units (including houses, maisonettes and small flats, with car parking and a communal garden) opened in 2001.

Other parts of the Coin Street site remain to be developed. On the land immediately adjacent to Waterloo Bridge, the current plan is to build a public swimming pool and health and fitness centre, combined with housing and commercial premises. Gabriel’s Wharf awaits its long-term redevelopment, which may include residential facilities offering nursing care. Plans for further development at the rear of the Oxo Tower have been drawn up. Finally, there are proposals to build a social club and community centre, combined with family support centre, learning and training centre and media participation space, next to the newly built Iroko Housing Co-op.

In other words, after approaching two decades the development of Coin Street’s thirteen acres is by no means nearly complete, though much has already been done.

Some might consider this slow progress. In fact, Iain Tuckett, CSCB Executive Director and himself an active participant in the original Coin Street Action Group campaigns, says that some people back in 1984 did indeed expect the development to be complete within ten years, although he adds that he himself was always sceptical about this sort of timetable. There was, however, one decision taken by CSCB in the early stages of the ambitious Oxo Tower refurbishment which did slow down the overall process of redevelopment. This was the choice which CSCB made to undertake the commercial development alone, rather than in partnership with others. Iain Tuckett describes the decision as "particularly significant" in the overall story of CSCB. "Oxo was a £20m development, on such a larger scale than what we’d done before that we began by seeking to do it as a joint venture. We got a certain distance with one partner, and that came to nothing, because they weren’t willing to give us a veto on commercial lettings. That was critical to us in terms of meeting our social objectives. We realised that such a joint venture was building in a conflict of interest: To put it crudely, the interests of an investor with equity is to carry out the development as cheaply as possible, to let it as quickly as possible and then to sell off the rental stream, and that clearly is a very different approach to ours, where we want to hold the property in perpetuity and to use the lettings to achieve social and community objectives - and commercial objectives," he says.

The task of raising the capital to develop the Oxo site was not straightforward. Iain Tuckett says that CSCB approached thirty banks without success before finally finding initial capital of around £2m from a merchant bank, secured on the organisation’s overall asset base. This was enough to enable essential structural repairs to be undertaken, so that later more substantial capital could be found for what amounted to fitting out the building. ("So we got over the Battersea Power Station problem," Iain Tuckett explains).

The Oxo Tower is now the flagship of the whole Coin Street venture, with two highly successful restaurants, one owned by Harvey Nichols, as well as a string of craft workshops turning out high-quality and expensive fashionable items. Helped by its distinctive shape, the Oxo Tower is increasingly on the tourist map of London. To some this might suggest a certain contradiction with the original community aims, which was after all to defend a predominantly working-class corner of central London from large-scale commercial development.

Iain Tuckett sees no contradiction between CSCB’s aims as a community development trust and the need to attract commercial clients, however. "It’s not an irony that the restaurants are there, it’s a deliberate economic strategy. One of the great failings of social enterprises is to confuse what your social objectives are with your economic requirements," he says.

"Unless as a social enterprise you are willing to cater for people with money, if you’re only going to cater for people in poverty, you will never get to viability. Any strategy that is sustainable has got to have something which brings in money and recycles it — it’s a Robin Hood approach," he adds.

By way of example, he cites the current plans to build a swimming pool in Coin Street. Public swimming pools are notoriously costly to run and few manage to operate profitably. The task, therefore, is not simply to find the capital costs but to identify a revenue stream to keep the facilities open. CSCB has already identified that the pool will need to attract office workers and students as well as local residents. But further than this, it is tackling the problem of revenue income by planning to build commercial space with the pool, designed to help cross-subsidise the overall venture.

It is probably fair to say that the original Coin Street campaign did not fully foresee the need for purely commercial elements in the eventual development plan. The emphasis initially was primarily on social housing (especially co-operative housing) and a park for local people to enjoy, though there was also the idea of developing light industrial units and craft workshops. There was also a desire to arrest the steep decline in local shopping facilities. Where the campaign was clear was in completely opposing the idea of large-scale office development.

CSCB realised very early on, however, that successful commercial ventures could enable the organisation meet its social and community objectives more easily. "From our point of view, getting Harvey Nicks was a huge victory, because it was the first substantial commercial non-office investment in this area. We didn’t want to get involved in running a load of businesses, we wanted to get the economy right so that private firms were willing to do business in the area," Iain Tuckett says.

This also meant reaching out to the workers in nearby large offices and encouraging them to leave their offices at lunchtimes to use the facilities in the Coin Street area. Similarly, it meant reassessing Coin Street’s initial reluctance to embrace the idea of tourism. Iain Tuckett talks of the importance of giving the area an identity as part of London’s South Bank, enabling it to benefit from its proximity to the South Bank arts facilities next-door and to promote for marketing purposes the riverside corridor through to the Bankside developments to the east of Blackfriars Bridge.

CSCB has formalised its links with large employers in the immediate area by taking a lead in creating the South Bank Employers Group (SBEG). This body now has eighteen member organisations, including major companies based in the area such as Shell, IBM, LWT, J Sainsbury and Ernst and Young, as well as the Royal National Theatre, South Bank Centre, the London Eye and CSCB itself. With an annual turnover of £2m partly from members’ subscriptions and partly from grant funding, SBEG has been active in environmental improvements to the area, in developing transport links and in working with local schools to improve their facilities. SBEG employs a small team of staff who are based in CSCB’s offices and work closely with CSCB.

Structures and staffing

 

As already mentioned, Coin Street Community Builders is a company limited by guarantee, the form of legal incorporation used by many not-for-profit organisations. However, in terms of structure, CSCB is only one element in the broader Coin Street picture. Closely linked in practice with CSCB although legally an autonomous organisation is Coin Street Secondary Housing Co-operative (CSS), a housing association which is registered with the Housing Corporation as a social landlord.

Since CSCB is ineligible for charitable status, four registered charities have also been established to undertake those activities which meet charitable objectives. This enables the charities to fundraise autonomously from CSCB and it also allows CSCB to benefit from Gift Aid relief when it makes contributions to their work. In 2000, for example, CSCB passed £60,000 to one of these charities, the Sirat Trust, taking advantage of the Gift Aid scheme.

The separate housing association CSS was established in 1987, a necessary step to access Housing Corporation finance which would not otherwise have been available. CSS undertakes the housing developments, such as the recently completed Iroko project, and then grants short-term leases to each of the individual housing co-operatives established. The co-operatives are themselves responsible for the day-to-day management of their own properties, including maintenance and lettings. They also have the option of using CSS’s services on a paid basis for other management services. CSS remains responsible for structural and cyclical repairs.

The primary co-operatives, of which there are now four, are fully mutual, which ensures that tenants do not have the option of a right to buy their properties. It is a condition of taking up a tenancy and joining the co-operative that people attend a training programme. For example, Iroko’s members were asked to attend eleven three-hour sessions. These had the aim "not only to pass on the essential information needed to run a co-op but also to develop communication and group working skills". Iroko’s members meet quarterly in General Meetings, and also elect a fifteen person management committee to manage the day-to-day business of the co-op. Similar procedures apply in the other housing co-ops.

The Iroko development provides a good example of the way in which,. although legally separate from CSCB, CSS can benefit from being part of the overall Coin Street development initiative. Iroko was possible — or at least the high standards which were desired for the development were possible - only because CSCB was able effectively to cross-subsidise the overall costs from its other, broader, activities including its commercial interests. For the Iroko project, CSS was able to raise a social housing grant of £5.5m from the Housing Corporation and also borrowed £2.6m from the Nationwide Building Society. However the overall development costs were much higher, and there was an effective subsidy from CSCB of several million pounds.

Although CSS is described as such, it is in practice not really a secondary co-operative (in the sense of having primary housing co-ops as its only members) though individual members of each of the housing co-ops are active on its Board. Despite the very close links, currently only three CSS Board members (including Iain Tuckett) also serve on the CSCB Board.

A final element to the overall Coin Street structure must also be noted. CSCB has created a wholly owned subsidiary, South Bank Management Services Ltd, which manages the Oxo Tower, Gabriel’s Wharf, the public park (Bernie Spain Gardens) and the river frontage. This includes collecting rents and service charges, gardening and marketing services.

Taking into account both CSCB and the Management Services subsidiary, the Coin Street project employs approximately 35 full-time staff. Iain Tuckett is the only full-time member of staff on CSCB’s Board; working to him are a Director of Housing, a Director of Development, a Director of Admin and Personnel, a Director of Finance and a Building Surveyor. The Management Services company has its own Director, who also works to Iain Tuckett. CSCB makes use of professional consultants, such as architects, quantity surveyors, lawyers and project managers, as and when appropriate.

One institution which Coin Street has developed has been the forward-planning weekends, held every year usually in Brighton, to which both Board members and staff members are invited. These provide an opportunity to discuss the future overall shape of the venture, and for Directors and staff to socialise together. Typically, about fifty people attend these events.

Accountability

 

We have seen how Coin Street Community Builders had its roots in a long-running and well-supported community campaign in the 1970s. By the time of the incorporation of CSCB as a company limited by guarantee in 1984, in time for it to acquire the 13 acre site from the GLC, there was already a pool of active supporters available, who had gained expertise both from participation in the planning debate and from developing and running earlier housing co-ops in the area. The Action Group also had links with two local community organisations, North Southwark Community Development Group and the Association of Waterloo Groups.

How do you structure a community-based development association, however, to ensure that it remains close to its roots and in some sense accountable to the community from which it emerged, even after a period of more than 15 years?

One option, perhaps, is to arrange for local representative bodies to have a direct input into the organisation’s management. In CSCB’s case, this could have been achieved by formalising the links with community organisations like those in North Southwark and Waterloo. Iain Tuckett says that this approach was rejected, however. He says that it would have been just too easy for parties attracted by the development opportunities now available in Coin Street to have taken over the community organisations, as a way of getting control of CSCB. As he admits, this was a technique which Coin Street Action Group activists had themselves resorted to at one stage, when they had packed a meeting of a civic society in Vauxhall.

Iain Tuckett is also scathing about the idea of developing mechanisms for direct electoral accountability. He says that this was a lesson he learned early in the 1980s when researching the structures adopted by community resource centres: "Street elections? Disastrous, absolutely disastrous," he says.

CSCB has also chosen not to use the possibilities inherent in the structure of a company limited by guarantee to build up a wider membership base of individuals supporting the initiative. Indeed, CSCB makes no distinction between membership of the company and membership of the Board itself — the directors and the members comprise the same group. Importantly, however, CSCB’s rules do state that all members must be local residents, and its Board is therefore drawn from the immediate neighbourhood. (The Board has chosen to co-opt a small number of other people, with particular legal, financial and marketing expertise).

CSCB’s Board continues to include a number of people active in the early Coin Street campaign, but — like the Board of the housing association CSS — new members have been brought in over the years, as other members move on or die. Some would argue, therefore, that CSCB has potentially allowed itself to develop the sort of self-perpetuating Board structure which, for example, building societies have often been accused of operating. This may ensure that the Board has the skills it needs to operate effectively, but could make it increasingly remote from the constituency it claims to represent.

Iain Tuckett’s response is firstly to point out that CSCB specifically rejected the option of setting itself up as a body to represent a local community - which it was known would in any case change as the area regenerated. Rather the aim, as he puts it, was "to represent the social and community values of those involved in the campaign". Nevertheless, he argues that CSCB is accountable in a number of distinct way.

Firstly, there are formal and legal channels of accountability, including those to bodies such as the Housing Corporation, local authorities, and the commercial funders who have invested in CSCB and its projects. There are also formal relationships with each of the housing co-operatives, to which CSCB leases the residential properties it builds.

But there are also more informal ways in which CSCB remains accountable for its actions. The development of the housing co-ops, which ultimately could provide homes for more than 1300 people, has created a constituency with a keen interest in CSCB’s performance. "If people on one of our co-ops are unhappy, that’s a real problem for us too, not just because we’ll have Board members who are from that co-op. We call ourselves ‘community builders’ and we thought very carefully about that phrase — we are trying to build a community that works. At the end of the day if what we do isn’t working we have invested that amount of time that we’re going to try to fix it. We’re very close to the ground in that respect," Iain Tuckett says.

In the case of the wider community, CSCB points to its record of setting up independent mechanisms (such as the South Bank Forum for local residents, and the South Bank Employers’ Group) to help build a shared community vision and to provide a means of implementing it. CSCB also tries to encourage new local community organisations (one example is FamilyLinks, a group aiming to meet the needs of families and young people). The charitable trusts provide a route which allows CSCB to part-fund these initiatives.

Commentary — some issues for discussion

Coin Street Community Builders argue that their story is unique. In the words of a publicity handout, "The local community has not only saved the area from being turned into yet another of the capital’s office developments, but it has created a not-for-profit company which has taken control of redevelopment and created affordable housing, recreational space, workspace, shopping and leisure facilities for use of the whole community." The project demonstrates, it continues, that "there is another way".

It is interesting to consider how much of Coin Street’s experience is indeed unique, and how much could be transferable to other contexts. Certainly, there is an argument that CSCB’s later operation has been helped enormously by the fact that there was a period of campaigning of ten years or more which predated the actual creation of the organisation. Without this experience, it is possible that CSCB would have found it much more difficult both to set its strategic objectives and to operate as an effective development organisation.

CSCB is surely right to reject overly idealistic means — such as direct street elections to the Board - of trying to be representative of its immediate community. There would in any case be a difficult argument to be had about what precisely constitutes that community, and where to draw the line — all local residents, perhaps, or just people who have lived in the area for many years? Employees who come to the area each day to work? Employers and commercial tenants? Visitors and tourists?

Nevertheless, there are also obvious pitfalls of adopting the sort of structure which CSCB has in place, where the Directors effectively decide for themselves who they want to bring in to join them. Whatever the democratic origins of the Board, this could potentially lead to the problems of a small, self-perpetuating and closed group. This becomes more of an issue where the organisation has responsibility for substantial sums of money.

CSCB has the advantage which other similar projects might not have, of being able to benefit from a steady flow of new faces, coming in as a result of the housing developments. Nevertheless, any assessment of a project operating like CSCB has to draw attention to the considerable responsibility, and power, which is held by members of the Board and even more especially by the most senior member of staff, especially if he or she also sits on the Board. To a large extent, a development trust association or social enterprise structured in this way is dependent on the skills, intelligence and probity of these key people.

Coin Street is clearly genuine in its desire to pass power down, wherever possible, to the community. However, this is not an entirely straightforward task. For example, the reality is that the housing co-operatives created on the Coin Street sites are inevitably ‘top-down’ initiatives, rather than organisms brought into being by the tenants coming together themselves to collectively satisfy their housing needs. Whilst it is in most ways admirable that CSCB is looking for its developments to become self-managed, in some circumstances this could be seen as an actual dereliction of its duties towards tenants — or, in other words, a traditional housing association relationship might be in reality be preferable. In this context, the compulsory training sessions for co-operative members are an interesting innovation.

It will be several more years before all the original thirteen acres purchased by CSCB are developed. After this, the organisation will need to adjust from the task of coordinating big set-piece development projects to the lower-key responsibility of managing the on-going life of the site. Only at this point, perhaps, will it be possible to write an adequate history of the venture.

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