Mak Gilchrist and Will Sandy were in Fish, Wings and Tings in Brixton Village, south London when they got the email from Lambeth Council. Grow: Brixton, their pitch to turn a run-down area behind the tube station into a community garden and space for local businesses, had been approved.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, wow. Now we need to make this work’,” Gilchrist says. “I felt our lives were never going to be the same.”
Sadly for Gilchrist, Sandy and many other Brixton locals, Grow: Brixton would never come to be. Instead the public land that Lambeth Council leased out for free as part of a regeneration project became POP Brixton, a commercial food market owned by luxury co-living company The Collective.
So, what happened to Grow: Brixton, and how did it become POP Brixton, a venture somewhat emblematic of London’s growing social divides? The answer is a story of brutal cuts to council funding and the ‘lifeline’ that commercial developments can offer to local authorities on the brink of going bust – one that shows how easily the borders between inclusive regeneration projects and profit-driven gentrification can blur.
I meet Gilchrist at International House, a council office building that towers over Brixton. From the sixth floor, you can see the Shard and the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building, as well as the looming developments of Elephant and Castle. Down the road in the other direction is POP Brixton.
Made up of around 55 converted shipping containers with a seating area and events space, POP Brixton sits on a plot of land that used to be an ice rink. The containers are let out to businesses – mostly food and drink vendors – on short-term leases. There's a New Zealand wine bar and a vegan burger joint on one side, plus a fried chicken spot and Caribbean food from Mama's Jerk. Since opening in 2015, POP has also housed Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, whose founder Zoe Adjonyoh went on to release a popular cookbook. In addition to food, the complex is home to several offices, Reprezent Radio and the Impact Hub, a partly council-funded workspace for social enterprises.
POP Brixton’s story starts in early 2014, when Lambeth Council opened a bid to develop the space. Gilchrist and Sandy, co-founders of community gardening company The Edible Bus Stop, were one of the many organisations to enter. According to Lambeth Council’s brief, it would lease the land for a temporary period with negligible rent (£1). The winner of the bid would pay for the development themselves and when their project broke even, give 50 percent of the profit back to the council. The opportunity was part of the 2009 Future Brixton Masterplan, a strategy to regenerate an area of south London with a proud Afro-Carribean heritage, and the scene of social tensions in the early 1980s.
The council’s brief focused on the community, and was shared with local groups and businesses. “Programming and use of the space should involve local people, organisations and businesses,” it read, stipulating that “whatever is provided on the site should not compete with local businesses, including the surrounding street markets.” Ultimately, any bids put forward needed to “seek to ensure that income generated supports the local economy, users of the site and the community.”
Gilchrist jokes that one of her early, less serious ideas was to use the space to save local food vendor Eileen, whose unlicensed roti stand was struggling to stay open. But she and Sandy knew they had to think big, and in order to pitch an impactful community project, would need another partner. That was when Sandy suggested Carl Turner.
Turner – of Carl Turner Architects, now Turner Works – had previously worked with The Edible Bus Stop on a riverside gardening project. He joined Gilchrist and Sandy as the architect partner, and the trio put their vision for Grow: Brixton to the council. It included shipping containers housing local businesses, as well as a large community garden space. Turner would sell his home in order to pay for the development work.
When they won the bid in April 2014, Grow: Brixton was incorporated as a company, and Gilchrist, Sandy and Turner all named as directors.
However, the good news wouldn’t last for long. Lambeth Council had not completed planning permission for the project when they opened for bids, so the team had to wait months before any building work could take place. They were given an office in Brixton, but it was here that the friction between the two companies began to show. An email Gilchrist sent to a friend in August 2014, seen by VICE, outlines the difficulties she had working alongside Turner’s team. In the end, she decided not to work in the office.
“I remember at the time saying: ‘something's not right here’,” Gilchrist tells me. “My gut is telling me something's not right here.”
Despite the tensions, in September 2014 Grow: Brixton was granted planning permission for the site, meaning that the team could begin building. However, when Turner announced the news from his company’s Twitter account rather than Grow: Brixton’s, Gilchrist’s suspicions appeared to be confirmed.
“We got back the next day,” Gilchrist says. “We had a meeting on Brixton Station Road, and he just handed over this typed piece of paper, which laid out how he was taking full control, and we would be paid X amount a year as contractors.” Emails seen by VICE from October 2014 show that Turner wanted to take full control of Grow: Brixton, stating in one that it was “not a proposal, rather a statement.”
After unsuccessful mediation sessions, Lambeth Council decided to hand control of the project to Turner, citing his financial contribution as the justification.
“I suspect that [Turner] never planned to move forward with us as equal partners. We provided the Grow: Brixton bid a crucial part of its integrity and USP, and I think Turner needed that to get it through planning,” reflects Gilchrist. “I think, maybe, we were set up for the fall from the beginning.”
Jack Hopkins, the Lambeth Labour councillor who worked on the council’s regeneration team in 2014, says that it understood Turner to be the main force behind Grow: Brixton. “I don't think [Gilchrist and Sandy] had the resource and the business plan to make it work, and [Turner] did,” he tells me. “He was always the lead person and he was putting all the cash forward. My memory is that he was kind of the driver for it, and had the concept. Will and Mak were involved more because they were local.”
Grow: Brixton was no more. Soon after the fallout in November 2014, Turner registered POP Brixton as a company, and the construction began. In May 2015, shortly after a protest by anti-gentrification group Reclaim: Brixton, POP Brixton opened its doors. Gilchrist and Sandy were not paid for their work on Grow: Brixton, despite many of the ideas in their original pitch now being used at POP. A year after its opening, the pair spoke to local news website Brixton Buzz, who reported extensively on the story.
Turner acted as the project’s architect and and along with The Collective CEO Reza Merchant, registered a new company – Make Shift – to work as the delivery team. Turner resigned from both POP Brixton and Make Shift in 2017, and is no longer involved in the venture. Make Shift still manages the space.
VICE made numerous attempts to contact Turner. He declined to speak with me for this piece.
POP Brixton is still owned by The Collective, a property company with flat complexes in the Isle of Dogs and west London, with a combined property portfolio of £2.7 billion. A redacted name on the lease agreement for POP Brixton is registered "c/o The Collective" as the guarantor, viewed as part of a Freedom of Information Act request made by VICE. The Collective also has a seat on Make Shift's board of directors, and provides guidance and support for the running of POP Brixton.
A commercial food market owned by a multi-billion pound property company? It’s a long way from the original Grow: Brixton bid.
On a sunny August afternoon outside the Ritzy Cinema, I speak to members of the Brixton Neighbourhood Forum. They have mixed feelings about POP Brixton. One tells me that her children – both local, and in their late twenties and early thirties – don’t consider it a place for them. Rather, it’s somewhere that people who travel into Brixton go to party.
For Ken Floyd, who chairs Brixton Neighbourhood Forum, POP Brixton is “for young, white people.” However he doesn’t necessarily object to its existence, even if the prices are steep. “Don't forget the gentrification of Brixton has changed the demographic of Brixton. So when you think local people might be Black, that's not necessarily so anymore,” he says.
Although sold as a community-focused venture that would reflect the diversity of Brixton, POP Brixton’s businesses are majority white-owned. According to the results of an internal survey conducted by Make Shift between April and July 2019, the business owners in POP Brixton are 55.6 percent white and 44.4 percent BAME. No breakdown of ethnic groups was provided within this data. Lambeth Council told me that it has not collected demographic information on POP Brixton vendors in the four years it has been running because the venture has demonstrated an ability to host “events that attract and support a diverse range of local people.”
It would be unfair to ignore POP Brixton’s success stories. Award-winning Indian restaurant Kricket opened its first site there in 2015, and now has outposts in Soho and White City. Reprezent Radio were given a new studio space after being evicted from their Peckham building by private landlords. But for many locals, POP Brixton does not seem to have been designed with them in mind. “When POP Brixton opened, I remember going there and not even feeling welcome, even though I'd lived [in Brixton] my whole life,” local baker Rose Whyte told me when I spoke to her earlier this year.
Although council-backed regeneration projects are hard to get right, they aren't impossible. Peckham Palms, a hair and beauty space that opened with support from Southwark Council in 2018, is run by and caters specifically to the Black community of Peckham, while appearing to be commercially viable.
In 2018, a 102-page report on POP Brixton, commissioned by Make Shift and Lambeth Council, seemed to distance itself from the project’s initial community focus. It states that “while Lambeth Council looked to engage the local community in POP Brixton from an early stage [...] this ultimately raised expectations regarding the ongoing role of the community. While POP had community objectives at its heart, first and foremost, it needed to deliver financially and commercially.”
For councillor Hopkins, however, community was and is at the forefront of the regeneration project. “I've got a lot of love and a lot of scars,” he tells me of his time working with POP Brixton. “We had long conversations about how to make sure [POP Brixton] was Black and minority ethnic, [and that] it wasn't all white people and it was local.”
POP Brixton today may not reflect the community-focused goals of the council's original brief, but has it been financially successful? According to Make Shift, POP Brixton was predicted to make a profit after just over three years of operation in summer 2018. When it became clear that this would not be achievable, the date was amended to 2020. After four and a half years of running, it has still not made a profit.
However, from 2018 to 2019, Lambeth Council received £53,750, a "pre-profit share", which is equivalent to around £12,000 a year for its plot of land. This was agreed as part of a 2017 lease extension and given in the form of a base rent. However, in 2019, when the project continued to lose money, these payments stopped. If and when POP Brixton does make a profit, it won't just be the council who receives money – The Collective will profit from this use of public land, too.
It’s hard to understand why a global property company would bother investing in a shipping container complex that makes comparatively little money. However, a source close to The Collective tells me that ventures like POP Brixton can offer their own benefits. Make Shift’s work on POP Brixton would likely have helped it secure the bid for Peckham Levels, a similar commercial space built in a disused car park owned by Southwark Council. Both these projects are temporary, and once finished, will leave the space open for other developments – including residential buildings. For the car park in Peckham, this potential redevelopment may be a long way in the future but POP Brixton's lease is set to end in 2020. While Lambeth Council hopes to extend the lease until 2024, when POP does close, it wants the space to become a “mixed-use development with retail, commercial, community, leisure, residential and town centre car and cycle parking,” as outlined in its 2015 local plan. Hopkins tells me that a decision on POP Brixton’s future will be made after its accounts are released later this month.
VICE reached out to The Collective but the company declined to comment.
Four in five councils are now investing in commercial developments to supplement slashed budgets, as funding for local authorities looks unlikely to increase under a Conservative government. Even when working-class communities – who rely on public services – are seemingly marginalised by ventures like POP Brixton, they’re also most in need of the money these developments make.
“In hindsight, whoever took that over was going to be shot in the foot at some point. It's a poisoned chalice,” Gilchrist tells me towards the end of our meeting, looking out at POP Brixton where customers mill around small as ants. “There's a really fine line between regeneration and gentrification. And I guess [the council] wanted someone else to straddle it for them.”
UPDATE 08/10/19: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that POP Brixton is made up of around 25 converted shipping containers and that its lease ends in 2024. Both have now been corrected.
UPDATE 09/10/29: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that POP Brixton had made a profit in 2019, based on misleading information shared by Lambeth Council. This has now been corrected.