“It makes me really proud of Stretford”: The Public Hall in Public Hands

When Annoushka Deighton first stepped inside Stretford Public Hall she couldn’t believe this beautiful building was about to be sold off. So she started a campaign to put it into community hands – and managed to convince the council to sell it to them for £10.

Eight years on, the hall is a stunningly renovated, thriving community space. Hosting social activities as well as essential services, helping to grow the local economy and boost its nightlife.

I’m Annoushka Deighton. I am the former chair and one of the founder members of Friends of Stretford Public Hall.

I was going talk a little bit about how myself and the local community took over this building, what’s going on in it and how it really shouldn’t have been so hard to do what we did.

Discovering a hidden gem

The very first time I came into the building was with a friend. We just heard that the hall was going to be sold by the local council. We stepped in, took a look at the beautiful foyer downstairs and absolutely fell in love with it.

When the council decided to sell it, locally there was there was a bit of noise about it. People were a bit upset, but didn’t really realise there was much we could do until myself and my friend decided to call a meeting. We put a poster up in the local library and put a few things out on Facebook and turned up at the local pub and to our amazement about 50 people were there, all with memories of the hall. They had been there as children, people that have been married in the hall, and people just had these lovely memories of it. And then a new group of people like myself and my friend who had never really been in the hall before but couldn’t quite believe that this beautiful space was on our doorstep and was going to get sold off.

We couldn’t quite believe that this beautiful space was on our doorstep and was going to get sold off.

The council were initially looking to sell it to the highest bidder. But we realised that this could have such a potential as a building. The people that we were up against who wanted to buy the building were property developers and they would have built on the car park built at the back and probably used this space in some other way that wasn’t really community focused.

Convincing the council

The more we thought about it, the more we realised there was stuff lacking in our local area. There was no community space outside of churches or mosques. So we started to build together a business case to show that we could provide employment and activities, but also really change the face of Stretford in terms of nighttime economy and the art scene. We made a really strong business case and did a massive campaign locally to get people enthused about the building, to get their ideas of what could be in here. By the end of the first year, we’d had over 500 people come and give us help and support in terms of campaigning, in terms of having open days and doing general clear ups.

Part of the campaign was really around making sure we changed the council’s viewpoint on not just selling the building to get this sort of instant wodge of money, but to demonstrate that there was long term economic benefit locally.  The other thing we did with the council to convince them was to show the community benefit. The council at this point was still hedging their bets, so we had to do a competitive bid, up against property developers, but very much gratefully to and, thankfully, to our relief they agreed we could take ownership of the building and we paid them the princely sum of £10 for it.

The building comes alive

Almost a year to our first meeting, we were given the keys, with almost no other knowledge about the building, like, where the boiler was or how the lighting worked, electrics, anything. We were just kind of dumped on the whole lot, and very quickly had to start generating an income to cover some of the massive overheads. So we opened up the bank with artist studios and started renting out office space, and got a film crew in. Coronation Street came in and did some filming, and there was a feature film made in here as well, just to tick things over while we got ourselves up and ready. We raised a quarter of a million pounds through community shares, which are a way of local community investing. And we have over 800 people invest in our community share offer, showing you how passionate people are about about this place.

There’s probably about 40 groups using the building now. There’s a warm hub. We provide fish and chip Friday where people come and get fish and chips for free and have a place to natter. Citizens advice are here. We do ESOL classes, yoga, dance, all sorts of things.

There’s that power of community, that power of being nimble and being reactive to things which we can do in a way that the councils can’t.

We now run some council services. During COVID, we became a mutual aid hub, and I think that really upped our profile at seeing what we could do. We managed to get it up and running as a mutual aid hub in six days with volunteers, with telephone lines, delivering food. Whereas the other aid hubs, the council-run ones, had to do it much slower, and I think they kind of realised, oh, there’s something going on here. There’s that power of community, that power of being nimble and being reactive to things which we can do in a way that the councils can’t.

On the other side of that, there’s also quite a strong events program – weddings and corporate events, and that pays for a lot of the other activity to happen and make sure that the building can kind of wash its own face. It also provides employment locally. We make sure where we can, we source local caterers and local suppliers. It’s become a real hub for the local area.

Barriers, stress and wasted months

Some of the barriers we faced with this project, the first big one was that they were going to just initially sell it off. And we wasted months campaigning for them not to and a lot of stress. And it was really stressful because I was really pushing people to spend their time and energy on this campaign that might go nowhere, that we might just get outbid with a big company that had millions that could just buy us out. And we wasted so much energy on that.

I see so many good, passionate projects where people really want to do amazing things where they’re completely kiboshed because the council just refuses to give them any sort of a discount on the building.

I now work for the Architectural Heritage Fund on the back of my experience here and I work with a lot of other organisations who are looking to take over heritage buildings, often from councils. And the barriers that they we now look back and I realise we were lucky. We were lucky that our council gave us a building, a for nothing and, b, gave us that opportunity to have it at all. I see so many good, passionate projects where people really want to do amazing things where they’re completely kiboshed because the council just refuses to acknowledge or give them any sort of a discount on the building, and they’re up against prices that they just can’t possibly raise, particularly in more deprived areas.

And funders, even though I work for one, can make things really difficult by making organisations go for very select pots of funding. And the problem with that is that organisations kind of move the project to fit the funding rather than rather than allowing the funding to move them forward.

The work that we’ve done with local social cohesion will end up saving the council so much more money than they would ever have made by selling off this piece of property.

I really understand people’s fear of allowing councils to give, as it looks like, away these these buildings that could potentially bring in much much needed funding. But I think it’s the wrong way of looking at it. It’s very short termism. Councils need to be better funded – that’s one issue – but it shouldn’t be by selling off the very limited amount of public assets we have. Property in this country is at a premium. It’s so important to keep those community spaces. The work that we’ve done with local social cohesion will end up saving the council so much more money than they would ever have made by selling off this piece of property. And that can be said across the board. If you sell off your swimming pools and there’s nowhere for people to go and exercise, then you’re going to have a lot of problems with health. The social impact of that, just the cost of that, is so vast that it doesn’t even bear thinking about. If you sell up all the community spaces and you don’t allow people to feel part of their community, those are the sort of things that lead to societal breakdown particularly in those areas that need it the most.

Joining We’re Right Here

I’m really thrilled to be part of the We’re Right Here campaign. It’s such an important movement towards changing legislation that will have a lasting impact. The Community Power Act that We’re Right Here is calling for is really essential.

It will make these projects happen across the country. I’m really excited about the prospect of it becoming a reality. We’ve really here at Stretford managed to change the way people see Stretford. It’s helped change perceptions both inside and outside of our local community.

We managed to do loads of fun things, loads of creative things, but there’s also some quite hard hitting work we do around poverty alleviation and community cohesion that councils would really struggle to do. And the act will help those councils actually and the organisations at the same time.

When we walk past or we come to events here, and we do have a little moment of, this is why we did it. This is why.

When we come back in here, myself, Lisa, and Dan, we sometimes walk past or we come to events here, and we do have a little moment of, this is why we did it. This is why. When you have those those moments when there’s we do these fantastic Christmas singalongs where there’s musicians singing, and we all get to sing along. And that moment where you look around the room and just see all these people all come together in a way they never would normally. That’s when we get that’s why we did this.

That passion that people have for the project and how much they care about locally, it’s really clear. It’s really clear by the amount of volunteers we have, amount of people that gave up their time, and it just makes me really proud of Stretford. It really does.