Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Camden Collective

Since the last time I paddled around these blogging waters an awful lot has happened.  I've taken over running the excellent Good Ship Comedy, started writing Edinburgh show No.2 and decided to stand as a candidate for the Green Party in the local elections.

Enough people who read this blog will know that I was inspired to stand in opposition to Camden Council's laughably ill-judged policy to license busking in most musical borough in London, when there are already adequate laws in place to deal with nuisance busking.  The rights and wrongs of that - and what I'm doing to help reverse their decision - are for another blog.  This one is about one of the best things that I've encountered since standing.

As much as I am passionate about busking and street culture in Camden, I realise that if I'm going to be taken seriously as a candidate there are other issues I need to think about - HS2, a living wage, jobs - so last week the Green Party organised a meeting for me with Simon Pitkeathley, the Chief Executive of an amazing organisation called Camden Collective.  Meeting him and being invited around the various properties run by his initiative was one of the most cheering experiences I've had in a long time.  The mainstream news and parties in government seem to be stuck on a narrative of austerity and a lack of imagination or innovation within the country.  What Simon showed me suggests something quite different.

Anyone who lives in Camden Town will know that the centre part of it has a very divided feel.  To the right of the station you have the colourful carnival of markets, global food stalls, tourist tat and genuinely creative independent artist stalls.  To the left it is a more dreary affair: with the odd exception the strip between Camden Town station and Mornington Crescent is an identikit British high street of uniformity and drabness.  Chain stores, betting shops and, most upsettingly, empty shop fronts.  But that might be about to change.  In a previously empty property next to Pret A Manger Simon has opened up The Camden Collective - a multi-purpose shop floor where he allows small businesses to trade for two weeks at a time to find out if their idea has legs and to gain all sorts of useful experiences and contacts that can help them grow.  The inside is made almost entirely from reclaimed material and even when I visited it at 10:30am it at an atmosphere of quiet industry pervaded, amongst the cake-sellers, dress makers and pottery-moulders.

Even more excitingly, this isn't the Collective's only property.  As well as using the top floor space above 159 Camden High Street as office space for various new companies specialising in a hugely diverse range of fields, they also use a property further down the high street. Down an anonymous back lane and above a gallery is one of Camden Collective's Hubs. A place where innovators in software for Google Glasses rub shoulders with designers sat at sowing machines.  Yet again, this is a place where Simon's organisation offers space to young businessmen and women for free, in order for them to focus all their energies on their ideas, rather than worrying about high rent and rates costs that could hamstring a potentially brilliant concept at an early stage.  More importantly, this idea of shared workspace and giving people room to fail and learn from their mistakes is key.  Anyone working in creative industries will tell you that the best ideas often come when they're having a chat in the kitchen of a friend working in a completely different sphere and the Collective's hubs are designed so that these sort of happily accidental pieces of cross-pollination will occur.

As well as inspiring me, the work of the Collective uncovered a huge failing in Camden, one which I'm sure is repeated up and down the country: wasted space.  Whilst the first floor above 159 Camden High Street is devoted to spartan but practical office space, the next floor up is a chaotic wreck of damp, detritus and the remnants of a recently removed mountain of pigeon guano.  It takes little imagination to realise that with a bit of investment and imagination from a landlord this extra floor could be turned into yet more workspace for the innovators of Camden to boost the local economy.  A bit more brave investment could make it a very palatable penthouse flat.  If you walk down the High Street and look up at the second and third floors you will likely see dark space after dark space - hundreds of square foot of empty, disused, untapped space that could house people, businesses, charities, initiatives and much more else besides.  I appreciate I'm only making baby steps into the world of politics but I've always thought that a politician should look for the most obvious answers to the simplest of problems.  We need to house people and stimulate growth and Camden is sitting on a goldmine of unused properties.  It's time for landlords to be brave and let their properties' potential shine.