When a dilapidated but much-loved building in Greater London got some TLC from the community, a share offer turned them into its owners – and the former library into the heart of the town.
The Exchange in Erith is community-owned organisation that has transformed an old library into a bustling focal point that hosts community-led programmes and activities.
It all began with local residents Sarah Batten and Peter Nutley. They kept walking past the building – which had been lying in a state of disrepair for a decade – and seeing a vision for what it could be.
In 2016, when regeneration money came into the area, they put together a proposal to re-develop the library as a community led and focused space. They competed with five other groups and won. And so began the work to transform the building.
It started with engaging the local community and finding out what they wanted for the space, followed by phased works and more fundraising. In 2019, a café was opened at The Exchange, only to be closed temporarily in 2020 due to Covid-19 lockdowns.
“We’d just had an amazing year of 25,000 visits,” said Sarah. “So during the pandemic our focus shifted. We worked with the council, providing an emergency food delivery service for the most vulnerable in Bexley, seven days a week.”
Alongside this, there was more fundraising activity and plans were made for a community share offer to raise the capital to complete the building works.
With face-to-face contact difficult, Sarah, Peter, their local staff team and their 70-strong team of local ambassadors, mounted a campaign via leaflets, letters and telephone. And it paid off. In February 2021, they launched their community share offer and within three months hit their £150,000 target, which included match funding from the Community Shares Booster Fund.
“It was a big community effort to get it going,” says Sarah, “without any physical contact at all. It was hard work but the outcome was phenomenal.”
With the building now almost fully open, 464 shareholder members and more than 170 volunteers, The Exchange provides a number of craft workshop spaces, including print, textiles, ceramics, woodwork and garden, where locals can develop skills and meet new people.
“There are now 40 garden volunteers, 30 doing textiles and 15 doing woodwork. We’re also working in partnership with Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust – we’re seen as early intervention space for mental wellbeing.
“The idea is that we provide the workshop spaces, people from the community come in, learn new skills, make things and we sell them – that’s how we sustain the organisation.”
While the shell of the building was regenerated by contractors, the furniture and fixtures are being made by local people. “We wanted to make sure they were involved in next phase of the regeneration,” says Sarah.
“So our woodworkers are fitting the place out, building furniture, workshop benches and other items. They’ve just produced 17 tables for the main space that ingeniously hang on the walls disguised as if wall panelling.”
As well providing the opportunity for volunteers to develop new skills, The Exchange is now an invaluable meeting point for local people to get together.
“Before it opened there was no secular place where people could come and meet and interact,” says Sarah.
“After we opened in 2019, we surveyed our visitors. One of the questions was: ‘How many new connections have you made?’ Most people said they’d made more than 10. Suddenly, people were able to come together and develop relationships with lots of other people.
“It’s also become a place for new mums and babies to gather and connect. We got a lot of people with slightly older children saying they wish we’d been here when their kids were babies, because at times they felt isolated and alone.”
For Sarah, the community share offer has played a crucial role in making The Exchange a success. “The support we now get from shareholders and members is amazing. They come in and support us at every opportunity. We wouldn’t have that kind of buy-in if we hadn’t had the share offer.
“We went into this project wanting to ensure the building was embedded in the community. It is and that feels like an incredible achievement. Operationally, the support we get from members is amazing.
“We recruit to our board from membership and it’s full of committed people. It makes things easier and helps with engagement. People are talking about us because they feel part of it.”