In Newcastle under Lyme, we’re involving the residents of our ancient and loyal town in a regeneration project that does things differently, and this blog is to keep people updated.
We’ve begun by introducing a new community cafe that’s been trumpeted by The Guardian as a potential game changer for decaying town centres, a place where the currency is hope.
It’s a community cafe and ‘creative space’ complete with ping pong parlour with equipment donated by Table Tennis England.
The menu is cheap. Cheese oatcakes cost £1, two pieces of toast cost 80p and coffee or tea is £1. A bowl of lobby with bread is £3 and a full fry up with tea or coffee is £4. Two hot lunches and two drinks can be purchased for the princely sum of £5.10.
There’s a dog menu, with options including a dried pig’s ear for 30p or a sachet of Winalot for 80p.
You can even participate in a workshop to design ceramic CounterCoins – the next leg of our journey.
This is the nub of our project’s uniqueness. Cultural squatters is staffed by volunteers rather than paid employees. They include people with all sorts of backgrounds and include adults with learning difficulties and people who have been unemployed long-term.
Rather than being paid a wage they receive Countercoins, which they can then exchange for good or services from other local businesses such as the bowling alley.
It works like a supermarket rewards scheme, except people earn credits by volunteering rather than by buying things. These credits are then used in the local community, potentially at quieter off-peak sessions at leisure facilities or in exchange for food nearing its sell-by date in shops.
It’s helping people who are not currently in the workplace to do something positive and productive in their community, and its potentially making the most of goods and services that might otherwise go to waste.
If successful, it’s a scheme that may well be rolled out to other towns across the UK.
Our town centre is not going to be saved by a big name retailer taking a punt on setting up shop. What it actually needs is people like you and me to spend some of our time and money there, and to seek out independents and community schemes such as Cultural Squatters rather than huge national chains.
Can what we are doing become a mechanism for fixing our town centres? We’ll have to wait and see.