How can you re-purpose a derelict building to create vibrancy in a local community, creating a safe space for disengaged young people - and the wider community? And more than that, how do you do this with a sustainable business model? One community group in Camden did just that.
In 2000, the Old Town Hall in Belsize Park, London, was at risk of dereliction. The grand complex – blending Victorian, Edwardian and modern architecture – was facing disrepair and underuse by the community. Thankfully, a progressive group of local residents got together and has been using the building to run its services as a creative performing arts charity, WAC Arts.
In using a space like the Old Town Hall, WAC Arts has created a safe and communal gang-neutral venue for a whole range of performing arts, as well as supporting a creative curriculum for those students at the ‘last chance saloon’. Bringing through its doors young adults at risk of failing at school, children with learning difficulties, and local residents, WAC Arts has turned the space into a theatre and dance studies, with flexibility for major theatre companies to rehearse. WAC Arts also makes space and kitchen/cafe exclusively available for many older people in the area at specific times.
It’s not been easy, however. An ongoing challenge is to implement a comprehensive building maintenance and conservation plan, and to get non-restricted financial support for upgrading building services and capital works. We need to do this work to make sure there’s long-term protection for the building, and to keep the learning environment up and running – which is enjoyed by so many service users and arts organisations.
The building was saved for re-use by an initiative set up by a progressive group of local residents, donations and financing through Arts and Heritage Lottery funding for redeveloping the complex, and then as the Old Town Hall supported local authority interests to create a new setting for statutory provision, it was gifted by Camden council to the community in 2000-2001, with specific lease covenants for community purpose for the borough. The buildings house a variety of charities and organisations including the University of the Third Age (U3A) and Akademi South Asian Dance UK to form a vibrant and diverse community arts hub - and we have been able to mix core social activity with commercial work for hire space and events space – creating a sustainable community hub.
Although Belsize Park is a historically affluent neighbourhood, the Old Town Hall’s main use is for the benefit of disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Camden and beyond. And it’s been successful. WAC Arts counts MOBO Award winner Ms Dynamite, Eastenders’ Danny Dyer, global jazz icon Courtney Pine, Shrek the Musical’s Dragon and Oscar and BAFTA-nominated Marianne Jean-Baptiste amongst its alumni.
It feels poetic that today’s activities in this beautiful building optimises on the power of connecting people – no matter how challenging their background or low in self-belief - to their creative selves in a welcoming, and importantly for many young people, neutral location. There’s also financial game - re-engaging this group to develop as productive and creative members of the community has been saving significant costs to our economy, and the public purse in terms of reducing anti-social behaviour, unemployment costs, and potential burden to the criminal justice system.
The combination of the building, facilities and WAC Arts is an exciting success story of social value, historical value and cultural value generation. It adds a lot of quality to a visitor’s day-to-day experience, and for many, provides access to the type of heritage asset they would ordinarily feel excluded from experiencing or may feel is just a bit too posh. And at the heart of this is the process of identifying shared value between different funding partners, local people and the local authority. It was and still is an ambitious, yet commercially sustainable re-development project, which is sensitive and meaningful in terms of what re-use of a major heritage asset for community benefit should look like.
To find out more about WAC Arts, visit their website.
Andy Warby is a Fellow and a Heritage Ambassador. Find out more about our Heritage Ambassador programme and how you can engage with heritage in your area.