When lecturer Kate Hardy and her partner Tom Gillespie moved from London, in part because of the unaffordable cost of houses in the UK's capital, she expected Manchester to be more welcoming to grassroots culture. Instead, she found the same difficulties, intrinsic, it seems, to major growing cities.
“When we moved there was a narrative about Manchester having this renaissance going on, which is true,” Hardy says. “But when we tried to organise meetings to address its housing crisis we found we’d have to pay quite a lot of money for a room.
“And we heard that people who wanted to play gigs were also having to pay a lot, so we put those things together and suggested using one space.”
So began Partisan Collective, a cultural co-operative that aims to surmount issues that can stifle community, art and innovation and leave these in the hands of a select few.
From a base in Cheetham Hill Road, just behind Manchester Arena, they offer a gig venue and exhibition, launch or meeting space, with a café, bar and office space imminent.
The idea is to offer areas that are affordable to everyone, all the while “cross-pollinating” ideas that lead to a culturally vibrant city, whether it’s providing a desk for a playwright, allowing a theatre group share services with an asylum seeker’s support group, or renting out a cheap space for a club DJ to try out music’s next big thing (maybe).
The idea of a shared social space for grassroots activities is familiar to Ireland; Jigsaw in Dublin offers affordable space to hire in the former premises of community collective Seomra Spraoi.
But larger, multidisciplinary attempts have come to a premature end. Last year, the Cork Community Print Shop (actually a gig and exhibition space) was shut down after complaints from neighbours, and Dublin’s Block T closed as it was “no longer viable in the growing market”.
The bad news is that this growing market is making conditions more unfavourable, with annual rent increases of 15 per cent. The good news is that Manchester, with rent increases of around 18 per cent, is in the same boat, and Partisan Collective believes it is close to the answer.
“Our starting position is already challenging; we haven’t gone in somewhere while rents are low to find they suddenly shoot up,” Hardy says. “So the business model we’ve developed is made with difficult conditions in mind.”
Core to their operation is their co-operative structure, and members behind it (seven so far). “ Some people are interested, but they’re not willing to dedicate too much time. So to be in the co-op you have to have worked four hours a week for three months, to demonstrate that you’re committed to it. Then the co-op members vote people in, but we’ve not rejected anyone so far.”
The trickiest aspect was finding the right building. They chanced upon their current HQ while driving past.
“A lot of landlords agreed to let their empty building for four years on a six-month break clause – but that’s just a six-month lease,” says Hardy. “If they got an offer from a developer we would be out, so if we got all these people to pour their energy into it and six months later we had to find a new building, the danger is all the goodwill would disappear.”
With a long lease agreed, their four-year plan envisages revenue coming from renting out office space, venue hire and membership. Like their entry fees, membership is priced on a sliding scale.
“For example, at our launch event last summer, if you were a carer or asylum seeker, entry was by donation. It was a fiver if you have a wage, and a tenner if you have a good wage or inherited wealth. We don’t check. The scheme is based on trust.”
So far they have not benefitted from government funding to help kickstart their operation. They will apply, “but everyone’s going for the same pots as much funding has been cut”.
“Manchester’s authorities trade on its musical heritage and its progressive history, but without doing much to support the newly emerging forms of these.”
The centre currently has two waged staff on its books with a view to hiring more. “Some collectives run solely on volunteer labour but we’ve seen that it doesn’t work because people get burnt out,” says Hardy. “They’re double-jobbing, and it means they get tired, tempers can fray, and that can undermine the entire project.
“While we’re starting up we have mostly volunteers running it but that’s not sustainable – as we get more established we’ll pay far more than the living wage. We pay £10 an hour to everyone; the architect gets it, and once we hire one, the cleaner will get it.”
Their operation might be well envisaged but there is no getting away from the fact that their fate is at the mercy of city planners.
“Where we stand after four years depends on urban development in Manchester,” says Hardy. “If it’s the case that the building suddenly has luxury flats popping up around it, that will be the end of the Partisan in that building.
“But our goal is get established, get money together and eventually buy a building where we can’t get moved on in the same way, so the assets remain in community hands.”
It’s says plenty about the lack of affordable alternatives that similar multiuse co-operatives are emerging; The Roco in Sheffield, DIY Space for London and Wharf Chambers in Leeds are also nurturing music, film, art and politics under one roof.
Other cities like Hull and Bristol have expressed an interest so Partisan Collective plans to create a handbook to share what it has learned about aspects from employment law to noise control. This will enable more co-ops to start off on the right foot.
Yet in Ireland starting up is one challenge; embedding as a permanent multiuse hub is another. Solve that, and the future of grassroots activity will be much brighter.