Re-occupying Union Street: How we built back our neighbourhood

July 2, 2021   By Hannah Sloggett interviewed by Katy Oglethorpe

A quarter of the buildings on Plymouth’s Union Street were standing empty until local residents decided to do something about it. Now they’ve taken over four – bringing hope, jobs, money and fun to an area that felt the rest of the city had “turned its back on”. Founder Hannah Sloggett tells the story of Nudge Community Builders.

Listen to Hannah tell her story

Transcript: My name’s Hannah Sloggett and I’m co-director of Nudge Community Builders.

Nudge is a community benefit society and we are bringing buildings back into use on the main street in our community – Union Street, where 25% of the land was standing empty. We’ve taken on four buildings in different kinds of ownership or control and are bringing them back into use for lasting local benefit.

Union Street is a conservation area; the buildings are amazing. I’m a bit of a buildings geek and so it just felt like such a missed opportunity. Because it’s gone through so many tough times and is still home to a lot of complex issues, it’s almost like the city sort of turned its back on it. There’s lots of investment happening along the waterfront in the city centre and it was almost like Union Street was ‘too hard’. And yet the community around here would benefit most from things happening that they were able to access and create opportunities around.

As a community we were like: ‘Why don’t they do something about these buildings?’ and we went through this journey of actually saying ‘Well why don’t we do something about these buildings?’

three years ago but we had been volunteering on the street for 11 years. Wendy [Hart, Nudge co-founder] and I were both in Stonehouse Action, which is a local community group. We decided to take some bags of shopping and some crafts out onto the street, just to try and bring a bit of fun to our local area. We just felt really stuck as a group so we were trying to think of what practically we could do with very little resource. So we did that and it was a lot of fun and lots of people who wouldn’t normally come to a community event turned out on the street, and at the end the police were talking to us and they were like ‘Next time you should do it on Union Street’, and we just all laughed, but then a year later we did. Every year [since then] we’ve had the street party. We close a big chunk of the street and people just spill out onto the road and it’s a real celebration of local talent.

What happened was that you just look at the street completely differently when it’s closed and there’s no traffic running along there. People were just all the time saying ‘Why is no one doing anything about these empty buildings?’. Gradually over the years we started to do more and more and started to understand who owned the buildings, why they were standing empty, what was possible. We started in quite a playful way initially, putting graphics up and artwork and sewing and stuff like that on some of these buildings. It was very gradual and totally unplanned that we ended up like this, but we just gradually built up an understanding of what was possible. We also we got more angry about why things were standing empty. As a community we were like: ‘Why don’t they do something about these buildings?’ and we went through this journey of actually saying ‘Well why don’t we do something about these buildings?’ Even then it was iterative, it was like we’ll just start with doing this [building] and then it just led onto another and another, and we’ve just gradually got more ambitious we’ve gone on.

Performers at a Union Street party

A lot of the stuff that was happening and still is happening felt quite paternalistic. We’re coming into this poor area to help you and all that sort of stuff. We just wanted to push back on some of that, to show that there’s a space for different ideas and different ways of solving what might seem complex issues: there are opportunities for communities to find more creative ways of challenging or addressing these issues.

You start to feel as a community that you can’t do things without help, when actually our community has a wealth of experience of talent of ideas, and they’re resilient.

There’s just something for us about the power and where the power sits. I think we’ve seen communities looking for permission whether it’s from the local authority or councillors or other statutory organisations, and it disempowers a local community. It’s not intentional but what happens is you start to feel as a community that you can’t do things without help, when actually our community has a wealth of experience of talent of ideas, and they’re resilient. It’s about how we tap into that.

There’s something about that strength and collective action and that’s what we’ve certainly seen over this last year. Because we’ve already done such a lot of activity it felt natural that our community could come together to find solutions for the things we needed through the pandemic.

When I was [at Plymouth] council I was an neigbourhood planning manager, so I was leading community involvement in long-term plans and planning applications – the more controversial planning applications. I really loved it; I didn’t leave because I didn’t love it. I know that [councils] are full of people who want to make great things happen and that care about what happens in local areas and really want to make a difference. I think for me it’s how you can find ways to ride alongside local people, to boost them up. But there’s that sort of paternalistic thing that kicks in almost straight away. The council is coming from a really good place but they don’t want a community group to fail or to take on an asset that they might struggle with. It’s that real sort of parental relationship and it’s a little bit like when you have a child and you need to let them make their mistakes and trust that they can take risks and they can go out into the big wide world.

for me it’s how you can find ways to ride alongside local people, to boost them up

We’ve certainly experienced that that sense of ‘You’re not professional’, ‘You need to do these things properly’ that kind of stuff – not necessarily from the council but from others as well. [Councils need to] let go a little bit and to take that risk and build that trust. The officers that we work with who have come alongside us like that, it’s like then you both grow together and you both create this environment where it’s like: ‘OK we all want this stuff to happen and what can we bring to the table to do that?’ rather than: ‘We’re going to look after you community organisation don’t worry about that’ or ‘We can take that off your hands’ or we’ve had people going: ‘Oh you don’t really want buildings you want to just carry on doing music on the street and markets’, stuff like that . So there’s a power dynamic that makes it really tricky, and it’s unintentional on both sides I think.

Artist at a Union Street party

Now we’re scaling and taking on the Millennium which is huge. Bringing a building like this back into use was exactly what we had hoped for when we set out to do Nudge. It’s basically a massive old 1930s cinema that took about 2500 people when it first opened, so it’s really big. We’re bringing it back into use with semi-industrial commercial style uses on the ground floor, daytime uses through the front and then a venue in the main auditorium area.

What I love most about the building is at the moment we’re doing tours and it’s like every generation has a connection with that building, whether they remember it as a dance hall, a roller disco or they came in there nightclubbing. It’s just really amazing – all of those different stories. That’s what made it really right for us to take over that building. It was hard – it was owned by an investor in Jersey and so it’s also a classic example of why some of the buildings are standing empty on the high streets and the kind of ownership that means that buildings aren’t in active use.

I think the messages that we get from our communities is that there’s a sense of hope and that it’s possible to make change.

I wouldn’t say that we’ve addressed all the issues along Union Street. It still has a really high crime rate. There are lots of issues with drugs; a lot of issues with street drinkers and things like that so there’s still really complex stuff that plays out on the street in lots of lots of different ways. But I think the messages that we get from our communities is that there’s a sense of hope and that it’s possible to make change. I think it’s very visible that we are employing local people so there’s more and more networks growing of ‘I know someone who works for Nudge’ or is in one of those buildings and operating their business from there. I think more and more people are seeing that there are opportunities being created for them, or people that they know.

I think the other thing is not to underestimate the visible change. The street was really closed down and we’ve now opened 25% now of the land that was standing empty. It’s just simple stuff like when you’re walking to the shops, walking past empty and neglected buildings just gives you a sense that you’re living somewhere that isn’t cared for. Just the simple act of having the lights on and having activities in those buildings helps people to still feel safer and to feel like someone cares about where they live.

Certainly now we’re starting to be operational a bit more, the offer for local people to come and use our spaces and access events or activities that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise has brought a lot of new uses to the street that address local needs, not in a service way but in a way that people can come and enjoy and experience different things. We’ve got the mountain bike collective operating from one of our buildings, Plymouth Parkour, HOPE who do football, and drumming and table tennis, and all that sort of stuff. There’s a whole lot of stuff that’s happening along the street that wasn’t there before that local people can access which is really exciting. But the overriding thing that people say, which is really lovely, when they talk about Nudge locally is that sense of hope, of possibility. So hopefully we hold onto that as we carry on.

Just the simple act of having the lights on and having activities in those buildings helps people to still feel safer and to feel like someone cares about where they live.

We’ve always talked about when is Nudge’s job done. When might we pass on these assets to another community organisation or a new generation of Nudgers. Rather than becoming something that needs to be sustained necessarily, it’s how do we keep that drive from the beginning which was ‘Let’s get these buildings into active ownership and uses that contributes locally’, it was never ‘Let’s keep Nudge existing forever’.

Hannah and Wendy in their zebra costumes

For me and Wendy it’s also how do we still have fun because it’s getting really serious now! We never really imagined that that was going to happen, and we want to still be out in the street in our zebra costumes chatting to people: that’s where we get our energy from. We want to still feel like we can be really experimental with things.

We want to still be out in the street in our zebra costumes chatting to people: that’s where we get our energy from.

Wendy and I never imagined sitting in the pub thinking shall we buy the Clipper; should we give up our jobs – I don’t think we ever really imagined that we would get to where we are now. But I think we both massively underestimate each other and ourselves. We’re super proud of what’s happened but it’s not just us, we’ve got a Board now, we’ve got a staff team, we’ve got amazing volunteers and we’ve got a whole network that supports us to make things happen.

It’s tough sometimes: we’ve had some really dark times, we’ve had to be really resilient and we do get bit lost in the enormity of it sometimes which can be quite hard. But overall I think it’s rea lly important to show that it is possible to have communities do things at scale, and that it isn’t necessarily about litter and events, which are important, but that actually communities can step up to some of the more longer-term change that a local area needs as well.

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