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Racial justice charity handed lease to create ‘new kind of community space’ in St Paul’s

Black South West Network successfully secured the long-term management of the Coach House, near Brunswick Square, via a community asset transfer. Now it can raise funds for an ambitious plan to turn it into a ‘centre for Black enterprise and culture’. 

Adult woman wearing headscarf, standing in front of open door.

Photos: @alexcarlturner

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“I’ve always believed in space, and holding onto it so it’s not lost to a housing development,” says Sado Jirde. “But I did not believe the emotional connection to this space, and what it means to people, would be this powerful.”

Jirde, the CEO of Black South West Network (BSWN), is talking about the Coach House in St Paul’s. The charity has just been granted a 125-year lease by Bristol City Council through a community asset transfer (CAT) to run the building and turn it into a hub for Black-led businesses. 

BSWN took over the Coach House, where around 30 businesses and community groups are based, in May 2021. Now though, it has unveiled an ambitious £5 million plan to create a community space fit for the future. 

The courtyard of the Coach House, which currently has around 30 tenants and an events space on the first floor. Credit: Alexander Turner

“Having been with the organisation for the last 10 years, there was a clear understanding around the idea of addressing systemic racism and inequality,” Jirde says. “But we need to have more conversations about the economy, economic inequality, community wealth building, which takes you to a place of assets and ownership.

“You have a city that is growing and continuing to prosper, you have a neighbourhood with gentrification, but as a community we don’t have a stake. We have assets like Malcom X [Centre], old assets that don’t respond to the needs of now and the future.”

This is where BSWN’s interest in managing a community space came from. The charity, which was founded in 2005, aims to support Black and minoritised businesses and organisations with advice, mentoring, leadership programmes, networking opportunities and research into racial inequality.

The Coach House building has a long history dating back to the early 19th century. Its cottages were mostly residential but the lower floors were occupied by beer and wine merchants through to the 1940s, while the two-storey adjoining building operated as a depot, complete with stables, for the Bristol Tramway and Carriage Company from 1889. 

After the Second World War, it was converted to a factory, where many Commonwealth immigrants worked. It then became derelict during the 70s, and was refurbished in the 80s. 

Ever since it has offered office and retail spaces, and became a focal point for the local community – a café and Roy the Barber remain tenants in the building 40 years later. 

What the Coach House could look like after the refurbishment. Credit: BSWN

Now, BSWN’s future vision is to create a so-called ‘Centre for Black Enterprise and Culture’. This means keeping office and studio space, but creating a cultural resources space, a large cultural events and exhibition space, and a restaurant. The idea is for it to become ‘part innovation lab, part business incubator, and part cultural centre’. 

“Traditionally with community centres, you have really old spaces,” Jirde says. “Everyone should have access to beautiful space. It’s almost reimagining what a community space is. This is not a community centre, but it will do all these things around enterprise and culture.” 

The vision for the foyer of the building. Credit: BSWN

Jirde says the cultural side is just as important, especially when the major cultural institutions in the city aren’t always accessible. Last week BSWN launched its UnMuseum programme, which aims to to “radically reimagine ideas around museums and cultural institutions”. “This space was completely packed with people having discussions about identity, culture and heritage,” she says. 

There are currently around 30 tenants, and around half are led by people of colour. But the plan is for this balance to shift over time. “Building Black and racialised minority businesses, that is ideally what the purpose of the building is,” Jirde adds.

‘It’s been a tough process’

Sado Jirde has been CEO of BSWN for a decade. Credit: Alexander Turner

There have been countless attempts by community groups to save spaces in recent years through a CAT. Recent success stories include Jacob’s Wells Baths in Hotwells and Jubilee Pool in Knowle, but there are many groups that don’t manage it. 

And recently, another relationship between the council and a longstanding community space just around the corner from the Coach House has broken down. The local authority ordered the management board of the Kuumba Centre around the corner on Hepburn Road to vacate the building. The board have pledged to resist the eviction.

“[The process] has been very tough,” Jirde says, referring to the amount of work that has gone into the Coach House CAT. “Did I think we’d get this far? No, every step has been a powerful learning, and at times I thought, ‘why did we get into this?’. I had to rely on so many people, board members who are lawyers, it was completely overwhelming.”

“I think you have an administration that genuinely believes in community assets and involving communities,” she says, adding that the process was still incredibly bureaucratic with BSWN having to provide so much information, demonstrate their social and cultural value, as well as make a strong business case. 

“I think there’s a lack of trust for a small organisation, community organisation, and also being a Black organisation – it’s not easy going through that process,” Jirde adds.

“I want to change the narrative about community and Black-led organisations. We can compete… Yes you can be grassroots, but you can be ambitious too.”

BSWN has already raised £500,000 for the Coach House refurbishment from a mixture of local and national foundations, but Jirde says now that the long-term lease is secured, the real fundraising can begin – with an estimated £5m to make the charity’s vision a reality. 

All of the current rental income goes into running and maintaining the building because it’s so old. “The refurbishment is so important because it’s not viable or sustainable to maintain the building the way it is because it’s very old,” Jirde says. “But if we refurbish, the rental income can go back into programmes supporting Black businesses.

If the charity doesn’t manage to raise its ambitious £5m target after 10 years, it has agreed to hand the building back to the council. 

The CAT will be formally approved at the council’s cabinet meeting on 7 November. The meeting papers say one of the main considerations in awarding the 125-year lease was the “exceptional social and local economic value to the city that both the refurbishment project and the long-term provision of workspace facilities and support services to an underrepresented group in the city’s enterprise and cultural sectors would generate”.

“It’s an exciting project,” Jirde says. “I hope it opens up an idea around community-led approaches that are ambitious and can build the kind of infrastructure that we want for the future.

“Hopefully this will offer different ways of building community space, which are radically beautiful and ambitious.” 

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