The creative spirit and sense of community that characterised pre-regeneration Hulme in the 1980s and 90s lives on at Work For Change, a co-operatively managed workspace that gives its tenants excellent rates, friendly informal business advice and a say in how the building is managed.
Their home on Old Birley Street in Hulme includes, offices, artist studios, workshops, café and theatre space. The building was developed in 1996, utilising cutting edge environmental design, in partnership with the Guinness Trust using European Regional Development Fund money.
The design of the workspace was directed by local businesses involved at that time. A prototype for mixed use urban living, the workspace shares a courtyard with 75 flats that are managed by the Homes for Change housing co-operative. Many of the original business founders are still tenants in the complex, and most people in Work for Change live in the Hulme area.
Within the Work for Change workspace, there are other co-operatives, such as Open Space, Ethical Consumer and the Fair Tax Mark. Just across the road is the Hulme Community Garden Centre co-operative, which makes this area of Hulme the epicentre of co-operative community in Manchester.
Work for Change, registered as a co-op in 1993, currently has 18 members. Sarah Hughes, workspace manager at Work for Change, answered The Meteor’s questions about why they set up their co-op and what the benefits and challenges are of being part of it:
Why did you set up the Work for Change co-operative?
The building was built as part of the Hulme Regeneration project and opened in 1996. The co-op members were able to get involved in designing the space – some of the same people are still here. Despite Hulme having a bad reputation for crime, a lot of people were actually running businesses out of the old flats. You could get a bigger flat than you needed back then as people were reluctant to live in Hulme, so there were people publishing magazines, running organic vegetable deliveries, making clothes and costumes, architects, graphic designers, theatre companies – all of which were not going to fit into the new smaller flats that people were being offered.
The small amount of business space (industrial units and shops) that did exist was demolished as part of the regeneration programme. Our space and Firmstart, who converted a church to business space, provided somewhere for people to create jobs that they really wanted to do and enabled them to support themselves.
We run the workspace by consensus decision making at monthly co-op meetings. The members decide the policies and the services that they want – like a shared photocopier. The members set the rent so that we have enough money to keep the building properly repaired, clean and organised, but nobody is making a profit. Any rent that isn’t spent in the year is saved up for future major repairs.
We have two part time workers who organise repairs, care taking, book keeping and all of the other things that need doing.
Have you faced any challenges as a co-operative?
Getting the building completed took a lot of time and effort, working with the Guinness Trust Housing Association. We put a lot of time into getting grant funding to build the space, so that we wouldn’t be dependent on any grants in the future – the rents we charge are affordable and cover the costs of running the building.
What is the best thing about being a member of the Work for Change co-operative?
It’s a great space to work in and very friendly. One new member who had just starting renting a small space came to their first co-op meeting and left with a contract to do some work, some advice about getting their business registered and someone to make their wife’s wedding dress. There are people who have been running businesses for thirty years so can give advice on lots of issues, but they also get to talk to new members about things like tech developments, so we all benefit.
Do you think Manchester is a particularly co-operative place?
There’s a lot of adversity in Manchester and historically that’s when people think “right then we’d better sort this out ourselves” – which is where co-ops work best. The growing levels of inequality in Manchester are disturbing and co-ops are a counterbalance to that – it’s about sharing wealth rather than grabbing it.
What is your vision for the future of Manchester’s social solidarity economy/network of co-ops?
It would be a good idea if we talked to each other more! Even though Co-ops UK, our national body, is based in Manchester and there are some great events like the Ways Forward conference, it’s easy to get busy with one thing and not be aware of what everyone else is up to.
How do you think a media co-op could serve Manchester’s network of co-ops, and its wider social solidarity economy?
It’s a good way to find out what’s going on around the city and beyond.
How can people in Manchester join your co-op or support their local co-ops?
Well you can join our waiting list but we’re fully let. Or anyone can use our hire space called The Yard for events or rehearsals.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your co-op?
The other good thing about co-ops is they’re often aware of their wider responsibilities so environmental sustainability is a big priority for us. We installed a biomass heating system and we buy our electricity from Ecotricity, who spend the money on building new renewable power sources. We’ve fitted individual radiator controls so that each space is only heated when the tenant needs heat, and to a temperature that they are comfortable with. We’re looking at replacing our lights with LEDs to reduce the electricity consumption. We recycle as much as possible through Emerge, who are also a social enterprise.
As told to Alex King by Sarah Hughes
Work for Change website
This article is part of a series called ‘Co-operative Manchester’, which is investigating the past, present and future of co-operatives in the city and the surrounding region. The series aims to increase public understanding of the part co-operatives can play in building an ethical economy and stronger communities. It will also highlight the great work individual co-operative’s are doing across the city, and mark The Meteor becoming a media co-operative this year.