A renewal of social meeting: tangible places from intangible times

In seeking to re-establish trans-societal connections as a response to divisions in society, exacerbated by Covid-19 social distancing, one remedy, a potentially fast remedy, is to create and vastly improve places of social interaction and meeting. The places were human experience is publicly shared and from where good deeds, sharing, learning and social wellbeing mechanisms spring forth. Social cohesion is needed now more than at any time in our lifetimes. Tangible places where this can happen are one very good answer to this challenge. It is here where great community benefit, freely and organically created, can result. Whether this be friendship and general support, medical or psychological advice, personal fitness, learning, public meetings, exhibitions, workshops and community sales, events of all manner come forth. Where such places already exist, these are often a humble (all too humble) community hall or building of some age, poor condition and resources. Often uninsulated and expensive to heat (or more usually are just underheated and uninviting). But for many this is something that simply does not exist at all. A radical rethink is required. A renewal of what these places might be – amongst the best buildings in our community. Town centres or more likely the local places that make up towns and cities often have no gathering place, no hall or community centre. This is exactly the case at Westcliff-on-Sea, a persistently socially deprived place in the 2nd lowest decile of the ONS Indices of Deprivation. This means that the only places for local people to meet are the streets or private buildings such as shops or restaurants. Such meetings tend to be incidental, short lived and unlikely to lead to comprehensive or diverse outcomes. As valuable as incidental meetings are, locals are not connecting in extended, meaningful ways likely to help improve society. These places need to be amongst the best resourced buildings in our cities, towns and villages, not the worst. The attitude towards these buildings needs to be completely turned on its head. No longer should they exist as poor excuses for community buildings, they should be amongst our best buildings, well resourced, warm, bright, clean and sustainable. Buildings of the best modern architectural intervention. Buildings that people eagerly wish to use and enjoy, supporting growing social interaction. Where these buildings do not exist they are desperately needed, in priority order. The suggestion is that local authorities acquire existing underused buildings or sites, if necessary on a compulsory purchase basis, and place ownership of these assets wholly in the hands of ‘not for profit’ community trusts for re-purposing or new build as places and spaces for local people to meet. The buildings must be community owned so that the sense of ownership, responsibility and delivery all sit together – whilst some might be very well run too often these are Council owned and run with the bureaucratic encumbrance and lack of imagination of the polity. Nor can they be privately owned or support private rents, acting in the specific interest of an individual or company. The cost basis for this is likely to be low given the present state of the market and the fit-out and set-up costs need to be covered. Yet the potential outcomes are rich in what they can deliver. Net sum gain should easily be demonstrable with well used resources. Where these buildings do exist and are anything other than already well resourced buildings of good condition, these buildings need help along similar lines, through re-building as necessary. There also needs to be permanent financial support from the local authority (i.e. from community finance), underpinning basic costs as a permanent social contract responsibility. So too there needs to be a responsibility on any trust for good management and fund raising, to help maintain and improve resources. In creating these places (with a suitable new, locally named identity) a new, tangible vision of community unity and support is created, a new view of what these community places can be. Available and accessible to all. Then interconnected virtually and through human exchange, across the country for all to share and learn. A deliberately devolved, small scale, local approach shares local responsibility widely. So too would personal and societal gain be shared widely.




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