Deana’s story: The fight for Coalville’s empty buildings

Deana Wildgoose is one of the six community activists leading our campaign. Here’s her story of fighting to take over empty buildings in Coalville – against the odds.

Hello, I’m Deana from Coalville C.A.N. I’m part of the Community Power Act campaign and I’m really passionate about trying to make community power happen. I think it would be really great for the whole country to start getting people in control of their spaces and places, and that’s what we’re trying to do in Coalville.

Coalville C.A.N. is a Community Benefit Society [CBS]. It’s about bringing people together, getting land and buildings in the hands of local people, using enterprise, creativity, connecting to bring people together, create profits from those assets that we can get hold off. And that gets ploughed back into the community.

Young apprentices at Coalville C.A.N.

So it’s very simple, you’d think it’d be a no brainer. But it’s very hard work. And we’ve been doing it for quite a few years. Coalville C.A.N., CBS, was formed in 2019, firstly as an association, and now it’s a fully formed Community Benefit Society. And this year is a very special year because it’s the first year we’ll do a share offer. So by the end of this year, there will be a building in the hands of the community in Coalville, and hopefully lots more in the years to come.

we wanted a piece of grass and we had to spend months writing risk assessments.

Coalville’s Marlborough Square was quite significant in its day. It would have been cooperative central – the whole area was full of cooperatives, shops, and cooperative retailers. One of the most impressive empty buildings is Coalville Furniture Store. We’re hoping to restore it to its former glory and find out what the community wants to have in it. So possibly on the ground floor, a mixture of retail, and community and leisure, we’ll have to just see. Then there are two big bingo halls. These used to be the Rex and the Regal. In their day they were massively popular. The Rex has been closed now for quite a few years. And it’s probably one of the favourite buildings of Coalville – an art deco, fantastic building, but the current owner’s not really doing anything with it – won’t sell it, won’t rent it – probably just waiting for it to fall to bits.

community power is about people having access to land and buildings, because that’s where the control is.

There are plenty of barriers out there to stop communities from taking ownership of buildings. Mainly it takes a long time and a lot of effort to get this far. And nobody pays you for that. Then there is some of the red tape around working with local authorities. Things like we wanted a piece of grass and we had to spend months writing risk assessments. We were even asked if we could have a lifeguard for it because there was a pond nearby. They’ve got a park right next door, they haven’t got a lifeguard on duty all the time! Why do we need a lifeguard? But these are the sorts of barriers that we face and we just have to deal with. It just takes a lot of hoop jumping, whereas actually what we’d like to do is work in partnership. And I think if there was more partnership working between local authorities and Community Benefit Societies, which actually the ‘Community Covenant’ part of the Power Act [calls for], that will be beneficial.

And you just think why? Why are these buildings shut up and nobody can get hold of them or it takes absolutely years?

For me, community power is about people having access to land and buildings, because that’s where the control is. We’re fed up of landlords taking profits out of the community. If people had control of these places and spaces then great things would happen. And we know that there’s the skills and people in the community that can make these things happen. We don’t want to hand-me-downs, everybody can actually do something to contribute. For Coalville it’s about taking over some buildings, and some of these buildings have been shut for years. And you just think why? Why are these buildings shut up and nobody can get hold of them or it takes absolutely years? We need proper control over land and buildings, and then amazing things will happen.

We’re basically not going to give up now, we’ve come too far.

We’re basically not going to give up now, we’ve come too far. And this year, there will definitely be at least one building in the hands of the community. There are two or three that are out there. And if we fail in getting them it will still be a great story.

To politicians, I would say find out what a Community Benefits Society is – it’s proper legal vehicle that can handle these funds. There potentially could be a super CBS that could hold some of these funds, instead of giving it to developers who were just going to extract the profits from communities. I would say to any politician: help create a Community Benefit Society in your patch and find out what’s already happening and get the money going into them.

I’m just sure that this year we will do it. We’ve been doing this for so long – something’s got to happen. We’ll get the whole country behind us.