The Community Organisation Rewriting the Rules of Regeneration

The landlords of Hamilton House in Bristol gave the building's managers 24 hours to leave. They said no.

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20 December 2018, 9:30am

Photo: Julian Caldwell

Bristol's Hamilton House doesn't look remarkable. In fact, it most closely resembles a rundown 1950s-built secondary school: copper-brown brickwork and reflective windows with flaking white frames. Yet, for the past 18 months, the unassuming block has been the field of battle for the future of the city.

After nearly ten years operating as a hub for outreach programmes, artist studios and small businesses, in 2017 the building's owners revealed plans to turn a substantial portion into flats. The proposal has heightened anxieties about regeneration in a city where house prices rose faster than London this year, but also sparked a response that could have implications way beyond the building's four walls.

Having sat abandoned for many years, Hamilton House was first purchased by landlords Connolly and Callaghan (C&C) in 2004. Their initial plan was to turn it into university accommodation, but post-financial crash that idea became close to impossible, so instead they invited a group of community organisers to enter the building. This birthed the group Coexist – an organisation established and supported by C&C to manage and develop Hamilton House. It's Coexist that, over the course of a decade, has turned it into a multi-purpose community space.

At its peak in 2017, more than 500 people worked from Hamilton House, including artists, activists and small business-owners – not including the hundreds of thousands of people who visited the space for events. The building also became the home of a number of outreach projects whose influences stretch far into the city.

Ari Cantwell came to the building as an intern in 2011 to work on a then-embryonic community kitchen. As is often the way with volunteer-run programmes, she quickly found herself promoted to a managerial role and was soon overseeing the development of a cookery school, focused on skills sharing. "We use food to bring people together, people who are experiencing isolation in our very broken society," Ari explains. She has seen the kitchen become a focal point among some of the most isolated people in the city, particularly refugees struggling with integration, who can use cooking skills as a way of meeting people. These programmes – from the kitchen to wellbeing clinics, to theatre groups led by people with learning difficulties – point to the scale of social ambition at the heart Hamilton House.

"When we first took over the building there was a big sign put up on the barricades outside that said 'everybody'," Coexist director Danny Balla tells me over the phone. "The whole principle has always been that everyone is welcome."

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Hamilton House activists. Photo: Johanna Dragović

The importance of this holistic vision can’t be impressed enough. Stokes Croft, where the building is located, is a complex area. It sits at the overlap between suburban north Bristol and the city-centre, surrounded by some of the most economically deprived areas of the city. Coexist made it their goal to involve the area at every stage. Danny explains that the building is a Big Issue drop-off point and that sleeping bags are kept behind the front desk, while the area's most vulnerable have felt welcome sitting in the downstairs bar area alongside business people grabbing a coffee and using the wifi.

Deasy Bamford, who runs her 30-year-old dance collective Tribe of Doris from Hamilton House, has lived in the area long enough to observe the development of Coexist and its influence on Stokes Croft. "The local people were quite resentful [of Coexist] at first," she says. "'What are all these white, middle-class people doing here, saying they’re going to do this that and the other?' But they made relationships in the area, so people trust them. It's quite instructive – to me, anyway – that if you’re persistent and genuine, and you offer something people want, then things can change."

The first sign that landlords C&C had new plans for the building came in November of 2016, when they triggered a community asset lock, beginning the process for selling the building. Coexist placed a bid of £6.5 million, which was rejected.

Around a year later, I was writing a broader piece about regeneration in Bristol for VICE, when I heard Coexist had been served a notice of vacant possession by their landlords, notifying them that the building had to be in a fit state to be occupied by the owners at any time. I spoke to the parties involved, including C&C's head of social enterprise, who told me: "Hamilton House is safe. We have put together a plan that will secure its future, and that of the creative community hub... The occupiers will not have to move out of the building, and will not have changes made to their rents."

Their plan was to convert the building’s rear block into flats, a move they claimed would generate enough income to refurbish the building and sustain Coexist. The community reluctantly agreed to this as a means of securing a lease on the rest of the building, and in March just over 200 artists were evicted. Yet, when the time came to discuss a renewed contract, the dialogue soon broke down. C&C informed Coexist that they were increasing rent on the building by 400 percent. Despite Coexist proposing a business plan together that demonstrated how – with the help of funding from the council – they could eventually reach this hugely increased rent, this too was rejected by C&C on the grounds that their plan relied on grant funding.

As the summer of 2018 drew to a close, following months of troubled negotiations C&C announced that they were looking for another organisation to manage the building, as they did not believe Coexist could "successfully execute its business plan".

"Pretty much every statement they’ve made to us has turned out to be a lie," Sean Redmond, an architect who works from the building, told me. "They said none of us would have to leave the building, that none of the studios will go, that they won’t put the rents up. Well, our rents went up 400 percent, the studios have closed and everyone’s being forced out of the building."

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Posters inside Hamilton House. Photo: Johanna Dragović

The months that followed the news of Coexist’s looming eviction were characterised by anger and uncertainty. A grassroots group dubbed Save Hamilton House championed the story to the rest of the city and beyond, eventually leading a march through the centre of Bristol in mid-September. Coexist were also gifted a sizeable anonymous donation, something that helped not only with legal fees, but also in supporting the staff they were having to let go.

It wasn't enough. After a decade managing the building, in October C&C announced Hamilton House would be taken over by new management, workspace developers Forward Space, on the 20th of November. Even more alarmingly, Coexist claim C&C were only prepared to give them 24 hours notice to leave the building.

Danny Balla says it was this point when their commitment to working with C&C came to an end. After a difficult conversation among the Coexist team, they decided that the 24-hour eviction period was unjust and that they were going to ignore it and stay out the month notice they felt entitled to. "That, for me, is when the community came into its power," remembers Robbie Gillett, an environmental activist who worked from the building until his eviction in March.

The decision to stay for a month has implications beyond a protest. By crossing the 1st of December mark in the building, Coexist have been trading from Hamilton House for ten years – the exact amount of time required for them to apply for a "certificate of lawfulness for sui generis community use". Hamilton House is currently considered B1A office space, making it much easier for its landlords to redevelop it into work or residential space. This certificate, however, could acknowledge the building has in fact been a community space, meaning it could only be developed for that purpose going forward. It’s a tactic that’s come too late to save Coexist, but could be enough to limit development to community space going forward.

C&C have already had two applications to convert the building’s rear block into residential units rejected, at both a local and national level. Many are now calling for the council to play an even greater role in securing the building’s future. "Bristol loves to tell a story about itself as a place where things are done differently," Robbie Gillett continues. "The council would do really well to make a strong case for supporting a community initiative that incubates lots of small organisations which then grow and do interesting things."

A group independent from Coexist have also filed a petition for the council to issue a compulsory purchase order and sell the building back to the community, which has accrued in excess of 4,500 signatures at the time of writing. Bristol City Council were unable to comment on the open petition, except to say it had reached the required number of signatures to be debated at a full council meeting.

These applications are important. If successful – and if the council are supportive – Coexist might leave behind them a building that belongs to the community in a meaningful sense.

In an email this week, Connolly and Callaghan told VICE that Coexist had been offered the opportunity to continue running the community and outreach activities at subsidised rents, with an additional subsidy for their restructuring costs. They say Coexist rejected a plan, formulated by C&C in the summer of 2017, under which occupants of Hamilton House would not have to move out of the building and would have no changes made to their rents.

They claim Coexist’s preference was to secure a ten-year lease for themselves, yet after discussion and an independent review it became clear that they would not be able to manage the lease. With regards to the 24-hour notice, they claim Coexist were informed of the end of their Tenancy at Will in August of 2018, and were told in October the actual date. They say the concept of "notice" does not have any relevance for a Tenancy at Will.

Regarding the petition calling for a compulsory purchase order, C&C say they "understand that the democratic process means that the city council is obliged to discuss the matter". However, they add, they have held discussions with the local authority and made them aware of the circumstances surrounding the management of Hamilton House. C&C say they are now looking forward to working jointly with new management, the occupants of Hamilton House and the local community to create a positive, thriving and growing sustainable community.

For now, as of the 20th of December, Coexist have had to pack up and move on. The plan is for the project to move, and Coexist are currently in conversation with homeless charity St Mungo’s about sharing a space elsewhere in Bristol. The mood in Hamilton House is foggy and bittersweet; a sense of injustice softened by all that’s been achieved during the past decade. Last week, the tenants enjoyed their last weekly community lunch, as well as holding a closing ceremony, during which they walked around the building reflecting on the memories attached to every office and studio.

Sean Redmond likens this moment to the seed pod bursting and the influence of Coexist being able to spread throughout the city. However, he can’t help but dwell on what he sees as C&C’s inability to see the true potential of Coexist. "For me, the sadness is all the energy, time, effort and money that’s been wasted on this fight over the past 18 months, when all they had to do was be honest with us," he says. "It’s sad for them, sad for us, sad for the city and sad for the community. There are no winners here."

That said, it's a future Ari Cantwell speaks about with more than a dose of optimism. She believes the move will help them expand their community, allowing them to start again somewhere more supportive of their work. The community kitchen is being ripped out of the building and put into storage, giving the team a well-earned break before restarting in the new year. Ari tells me she feels satisfied that Coexist’s fight has provoked an important conversations about what is legal, versus what is right.

"You hear so often, from people who are sympathetic, 'Thing is, I guess it’s their building – they can do whatever they want,'" she says. "Well, actually, no."

Bristol has long been positioned as the next lamb for the slaughter now London has been bled dry. If Hamilton House, an independent centre for art and social enterprise, becomes a hub for tech startups – or, worse still, flats – there's a fear the city's most defiant district may be snuffed out. Fear also surrounds what will become of Stokes Croft and the vulnerable people who seek shelter and community there. Whether new managers, Forward Space, will be as understanding of the area's rough sleepers remains to be seen.

There is a chance, however, that through activism, an intelligent use of planning law and the potential of support from the council, the building might be kept in the hands of the community it currently serves. The hope is that Coexist, in a new home, can take the blueprints of what they created in Stokes Croft to bring social enterprise to a new part of the city. Yet, the even greater hope may lie in what they are leaving behind.

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