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The Big Orange Shed

The big orange shed that holds the key to Britain’s economic recovery

Originally published in The Guardian by Aditya Chakrabortty on 6th January 2015, Illustration by Matt Kenyon

Social enterprise start-ups like Building Bloqs are exactly what our broken economy needs. But politicians, bankers and investors must play ball.

On an industrial estate on the northernmost outskirts of the capital hulks a big orange shed that will form part of the answer as to whether Britain really can fix its broken economic model. A big claim, I know – but practically everyone who visits Building Bloqs comes away convinced of its importance.

Perhaps it’s the promise it holds: bringing jobs to a jobless local economy, re-inserting manufacturing into a deindustrialised husk of a place. Maybe it’s the warmth of the directors, all in their 30s: Al Parra, ever ready with schooners of tea; Arnaud Nichols, always enthusing about some engineering project; and Alex Motta, whose cheap gourmet canteen feeds mezze to the local forklift drivers. These guys aren’t even in it for the money. Like the Co-op grocers or the Big Issue, Building Bloqs is a social enterprise: it has to pay its way in the world, but seeks to reinvest the profits and caps how much anyone can take out.

No wonder local councillors vow to do all they can to help Al, Arnaud and Alex, or that George Osborne invites them to Downing Street. Or that they not only win an award for innovation, but one of the judges now does their books for free. Yet despite all the goodwill and the unanimous political agreement that this is the kind of start-up Britain needs, it’s touch and go if Building Bloqs will survive. Just why that should be is a compelling, depressing and instructive tale about how little politicians on all sides have learned in the wake of the crash.

To grasp the importance of Building Bloqs, just look at the even bigger neighbouring sheds in whose shadow it sits. Yes, that’s the giant Tesco where on Black Friday last November punters fought for marked-down coffee machines. And it’s right next to the Ikea whose opening sparked a near-riot. Both those retailing behemoths are on Glover Drive, named after Glover and Main, which manufactured millions of the gas stoves used in British kitchens after the war. This entire area, where Tottenham tips into Edmonton, used to be a manufacturing powerhouse. Now it’s all gone, and what’s replaced the factories is … sweet FA.

I grew up here, and have seen this area slide within three decades from a place of working-class prosperity to one of the most deprived parts of the country. Nowadays they call it Shanktown: a place of knife murders and gang violence.

Against that backdrop of dead-end criminality and plastic consumerism, Building Bloqs stands out. This isn’t some Pathé newsreel factory. The people inside aren’t on an assembly line churning out the same goods. Instead, they’re freelancers who pay about £20 a day to hire a bench and get access to all the tools and knowhow of Al and Arnaud – and each other. It’s called a makerspace, a non-profit collaborative workplace of a kind spreading across America, yet still quite new in Britain.

In the 14 months since opening, Building Bloqs has transformed lives. Set designer Hugo, who couldn’t afford his own workspace and used to work either in a garden or in the theatre, now has a cheap space to build, experiment and store his designs. Joe, who for years had to rely on more established mates to pass him carpentry jobs, now has an HQ, a client base and an enterprise. Of the 70 members, around 40% are running a self-sustaining business out of this building. Around 30 livelihoods and households have been changed by it, two enterprises have been spun out – and a hollowed-out local economy has received a substantial boost.

This is the march of the makers promised by Osborne. This is the rebalancing all the politicians prayed for. But this is also the place that shows how all that talk was just guff. Because it is an open question whether Building Bloqs lives or dies.

Despite pulling 60-hour weeks, the directors draw no salary from it. They eat and do their laundry at the shed, and work on the side for cash. Last weekend, Arnaud totted up his entire life savings: he has £200 to his name. Although the company has been breaking even for the past few months, the roof leaks, half the electricity runs off extension leads, and the unheated open space is Arctic.

Why are they in such a state? For exactly the same reason everyone likes them: because they’re new and different. So different that, although Al has tried everywhere for lending from nationalised Lloyds to ethical Triodos, he couldn’t even raise a £10,000 overdraft. Had he wanted financing to open a franchise of McDonald’s he would have had fewer hurdles to jump, and Edmonton would have a few more zero-hours jobs, and be a few thousand quarter pounders further into an obesity epidemic. But a new social enterprise with no financial track record proved too much for the bank managers to get their heads around.

Politically, the response has been just as woeful. The rightwing solution to Building Bloqs’ problems was on offer at that Downing Street social hosted by Osborne, where “sharing economy” start-ups rubbed shoulders with venture capitalists. Yet when Arnaud buttonholed an investor, he was told that Building Bloqs was a lovely idea, “but I am never going to make five times my money back off you guys”. And while Labour-run Enfield council has been good on other things, here the local politicians have just pointed to austerity as an excuse.

So Labour sticks to its old solution of public funds, and the Tories offer more market – and, meanwhile, Building Bloqs and other hopes of rebuilding a broken economy fade away. From the fall of Northern Rock in 2007 to September 2014, Britain lost a net total of 352,000 manufacturing jobs; London and the south-east shed 87,000 manufacturing posts, even while it gained 15,000 more financiers. Those figures tell you plenty about the new old economy that Britain is building.

After a pleasantly full and frank exchange over the weekend, the Enfield councillor in charge of regeneration has offered to think again about how he might help Building Bloqs. Here are some ideas for him – and for every area that has been stripped of a local economy: set up a register of local professionals who might offer their accountancy, legal and other expertise pro bono to companies such as Building Bloqs; ask local ventures to list the services and materials they need; hook up makerspaces to the local further education colleges to provide work experience and publicity; challenge the big banks to lend more money to genuinely local businesses; and finally, ask Ikea to use its empty lobbies to advertise places like Building Bloqs.

I wish Al, Arnaud and Alex every success. But rebuilding Britain’s economy must not rest on three men working their arses off and not knowing if they’ll be here this time next year.