My time on the POP Brixton journey is 2 years old and I’m proud to have built something with some fantastic Brixtonians. We’ve improvised, innovated and delivered jobs, opportunities and something iconic, proving along the way that economic success does not have to come at the expense of social value. This is my thanks to them and those that encouraged and supported us to go the extra mile.
In the early days, the typical reaction to our plans for Pop Brixton was “you mean like Boxpark Shoreditch?” Not any more. We are a year in and we are nothing like Boxpark Shoreditch. We are proudly POP Brixton. Delivering 100s of jobs, space for loads of Lambeth start-ups and 100’s of hours of community give back and community activities. Nearly half a million people have visited since Pop opened its doors last summer.
But that image of what Boxpark Shoreditch was, and what we would not be, was always in our minds and I think staying true to that is why POP Brixton feels like it’s been around for longer than a year. It feels part of Brixton. And being of Brixton and for Brixton was always something which guided us. Boxpark Shoreditch could have been anywhere. We wanted something that would be Brixton.
We wanted this empty scrub of land to do something for Brixton; to aide economic recovery, to spread footfall and attract new people to spend money. We wanted it to provide the opportunities for local start-ups and business. We needed it to not run at a loss, better still to provide profits back into the Council as a revenue stream to begin the next wave of business and job creation. See now Loughborough junction and Waterloo Meanwhile space.
One of the main reasons for remaining true to Brixton, to balance between the economic realities and our political and community principles, was the steering group working together for over a year before the tenants moved in. The group helped develop and shape something which hadn’t been done before, to have a standalone commercial venture driven by social and community values. In part this blog is to thank them. For the last two years it has been in our lives and everyone has contributed, shaped and shared in the success of POP Brixton.
Stuart from the Brixton Market Traders Federation, Nigel from the Academy, Ellie from Satay Bar, Binki and Tom from the Brixton£ and local Labour Councillor Matt Parr. Along with Carl Turner, POP staff and numerous Council officers we kept each other looking at the right things, checking them three times and keeping on track, both toward delivery but also in line with our principles. Tom Bridgman never took the easy route, never stopped challenging and improving and expecting the best and much of what is good about POP is because of his commitment and attitude.
And of course we had a number of challenges over the years. Adidas came knocking to pay for use the “coolest space in London right now.” We had always committed to no brands and we were strictly no chains. But Adidas came with money to the project and with little intrusion (they wanted three weekends, not a permanent shop or branding) They also came after some swift negotiation with opportunities for local football clubs to train with Premier League players, practise their skills and the clubs to walk away with some much needed cash.
We did it and along with the money there is also now POPFields which has been created with some of the proceeds to show the Euro’s, provide sporting opportunities for youngsters again and well…. I think the majority of the steering group stand by our decision to say “yes, but only under the following conditions.” The steering group’s existence ensured that the question was debated and a harder bargain fought.
Many of the things we didn’t know how to do and for some there was no precedent so we had to improvise. We set out a scoring matrix and a selection process for the applicants through some tough steering group meetings. How to make it diverse? How to make it Lambeth? How to get a good mix which worked? How to pick winners with good business models? How to do this fairly? How to let POP have the commercial and creative discretion they needed, but with proper checks and balances by the steering group? Then the same process with the subsidised units and those set aside for non-commercial ventures who pay with social good like Repezent Radio and Bouceback.
We put in criteria about local links which resulted in 75% of the businesses being run by Lambeth people. We couldn’t put a diversity quota in there legally but it was made clear that this was part of the cultural and creative mix that POP would need to demonstrate, a place that looked and felt like Brixton. It is 40% BAME businesses.
There was also how well their business model stacked up and lastly what sort of social give back, thoughts and commitments they would offer. Some of these are harder to judge and score than others. It is not an exact science. POP Brixton’s mix, which was approved by the steering group, has worked out pretty well I think. Some dropped out before occupation, some have since left but generally the community which has been created feels very close.
At the start we were fully committed (still are) to the concept of responsible businesses giving back to their community. Without the tenants in place it was difficult to work out what would be a measurable and firm commitment that would work best for both business and community. With something organic not bureaucratic sometimes you just have to shape and see. We hoped for this give back to be part of the business communities DNA, not a budget line entitled CSR which happens once a year. And that one hour a week would turn into many without needing to be asked for. Those individual hours surely have.
We also wanted this social business sense to spread further, to make it easier for businesses in Brixton and across Lambeth to be involved in supporting their communities. There is much willingness to do this amongst businesses, especially in Brixton, and we wanted to see the tenants as more than a rental stream as some landlords and landowners do. But someone who adds value at the expense of profit. In straightened times foregoing additional revenue to mitigate against cuts is not taken lightly or often.
Of course responsible businesses need responsible landlords and again POP Brixton have not failed to deliver. Everyone has a gripe about their landlords, but it is how they complain and to whom that really counts. From day one, I have had very few complaints from tenants. Some naturally but swiftly dealt with. The steering group hears reports, we meet the tenants. The landowners meet its sub tenants to make sure the landlord is being responsible. I think that is a healthy relationship to have, where each party gets to hold the other to account if necessary but is incentivised to just be better to each other so they don’t have to.
When POP Management came with a plan to us which involved 15% top slice of drinks based businesses to contribute to extra marketing for the whole site, extra ways to deal with crowds to fulfil licensing obligations and extra clean up, I was initially nervous. When the plan also contained differentiated rent for food businesses so less footfall meant less rent to pay, more meant more, I was worried that it would end up in a battle. But the plan had come through tenant and landlord negotiations without the need to involve the Council, the steering group. A couple of official nods to fairness, polluter pays, demonstrated to me that this place was a genuinely well functioning ecosystem, where landlord and tenant knew their responsibilities and engaged with each other. Good landlording is onerous, but it reaps dividends and benefits. It helped no doubt that Philippe from POP, a long standing Brixton resident and small business owner, was alive to the politics of this place and the importance of rigorous business discipline but an appreciation of when times are tough.
The steering group is going to change now. Much of the programme management, steering the thing through the Council’s planning process, making sure that the electricity is working, making sure milestones were met, deadlines delivered to is now over. The general running of the place is on the whole sound and stable
POP has not disappointed. It is a community (In no small part to the Brixton IMPACT Hub, a business community within a business community) and I am very proud to have been a part of POP’s story. Although I am standing down from the steering group, I know this group of individuals will continue to impress, to improvise and to innovate.
Politics at this point in time can be trying, but POP has allowed us to do something in line with our values of providing opportunities as well as something which works in the real work. It has given us the chance to also show that the economy can run in a different and more social way; that good landlording is about being hands-on, being involved and sharing the successes and failures of your tenants; that being a shareholder (in the sense that we are the landowner) is about active stewardship, having a collective sense of purpose and founding principles; that Lambeth is a hugely talented place and what is needed are opportunities, space and support for those people to achieve; that business is not just about profit and loss but how successful your wider community is doing.
POP’s not perfect but it’s a damn mighty effort at walking the walk on opportunity and the benefits of regeneration for those of our number who need it. Well done the team and no letting up the pace!