Getting off the ground: A journey from car park to kickstart

If you live in London, you’ll have heard of Pop Brixton and Peckham Levels. If you’re a seasoned Londoner, you’ll definitely have been to at least one of them. Both bubbling with an edgy, grassroots vibe, they are the place to go for guaranteed delicious food and craft beer, progressive art and design, fresh music and even hot exercise classes. In other words, they’re the perfect destination for Millennials...

What you may not realise, is the extent to which both of these destinations, both transformed from disused car parks, help the communities of which they are part. They exist to help creative and ambitious local people get their ideas off the ground. Make Shift is the company which designs, builds and manages these (and, soon, other) public spaces that house communities of local, independent businesses.

Make Shift projects focus on providing the space and support that talented people need to bring their ideas and ambitions to life. It makes its spaces as affordable as possible, offers as much support as it can, and actively connects members with each other and the community around them.

We spoke to James Leay, the managing lead at Make Shift, about his journey turning a car park into an exciting hub for local talent...

James, we’re intrigued, how did Make Shift and its projects come about?

Well, I started out my career in a FTSE 100 company but, really, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I then went into a job financing startup businesses, where I helped them write business plans, find startup investment, and so on. In that job, I jumped in and learnt a lot from different entrepreneurs. After I left and began working in the tech industry for an augmented reality startup, I realised I missed people. I’m a believer in community and human connection, and do worry what will happen to connectedness as tech grows. Anyway, after that, I left the job and started running a food stall.

Make Shift came about when Lambeth Council put a plot of land out to tender. Carl Turner initially won his pitch to turn the empty plot of land into a new destination that would house small, local businesses working in food, retail, social enterprise and the creative industries. Philippe, now our acquisitions lead, myself and our community lead, Rose, were then bought in to run the project. We sat around one desk in a kitchen and turned the site into a useful asset for the community, which we called Pop Brixton. Now, we have over sixty member businesses at Pop, more than ninety at Peckham Levels, and Make Shift is a team of fifteen. We’re also launching a new site in Hackney next year.

Sounds like the journey would have been fun, difficult and rewarding all at the same time... What exactly is the social purpose of Make Shift’s projects?

We showcase local talent and answer the need of the community. This way, small entrepreneurs are allowed a chance. We understand because we’ve been there ourselves. If you need a desk or a market stall, you can do that with us. By helping entrepreneurs reach the first rung on the trading ladder, we show landlords that these are sustainable businesses. From here, it’s easier for them to go on and secure a commercial lease if they want to.

You took a car park, covered it in shipping containers and made it a place people really want to be. Was the ‘upcycled’ design important to the success of Pop?

There’s a perception that people are obsessed with clean metal and glass, but I find that this isn’t actually real. Carl Turner is the architect and the Glastonbury Festival guys, who build the fairground, helped us out. We’re called Make Shift, so it was important that we used materials which allude to that ethos, and materials like that do generate a creative environment that inspires people. Our sites provide education opportunities for people, too. The makeshift nature of the site inspires people to come to and engage with it.

Plus, recycling old materials is very responsible. What’s your sustainability vision for Make Shift sites?

Sustainability is an ambition of ours that we want to work towards. Our focus, however, is on how you build sustainable communities - where people can live, work and make a living sustainably.

As well as helping out local entrepreneurs, we offer time and resource to education programmes for the local community and provide work experience. We can offer a day with a food trader, a day with a retailer, and a free after-school kids’ club run by volunteers. We are also working with Age UK in training the elderly on how to use computers. And we operate a London Living Wage policy and our traders buy goods locally.

We give a percentage of our profits and time to local businesses and community. We offer supported rents to social enterprises from the local area, giving rents at 20-50% of the other businesses on the site, with units from just £250 a month. For example, we work with Bounce Back - an organisation which works with day-release prisoners in Brixton, getting them back into work - and with Intoart, an art and design studio, who work exclusively with disabled artists in Peckham. We’re always looking to add social value, not just financial value.

The vision is to create the fairest and most efficient socially active platform for talent that there is. And we want to make sure that the entrepreneurs we support are from the local community: Nearly three quarters of our tenants are owned by Lambeth residents, three quarters of their employees are local and the average tenant purchases 41% of goods locally.

Is environmental sustainability factored into your operations?

Though our primary focus is to create sustainable communities, we have to be environmentally conscious too. All of our waste is recycled by local social enterprises at present, but the aim is to be completely zero waste. Cutting out plastic and replacing it with reusables has its logistical challenges, but it can be done.

And, of course, we are repurposing spaces and materials in our construction, which is responsible as you say, but I’d be lying to say the materials we use are completely sustainable. Thankfully, sustainable materials are becoming more viable, which is exciting. You can now find those which match the price of less sustainable alternatives. When we reach this tipping point, using sustainable materials will categorically be the best choice for business and hopefully it will become the norm.

What was the attitude of the local community towards Pop?

There was a very mixed response to us building Pop Brixton. Change is a scary thing. Places that have seen a lot of change can get defensive. So we feel we need to prove ourselves. Gentrification displaces existing cultures and communities - but that’s not what we’re doing. We need to be clear that we help people within the local community and invest in the community in a way which answers to their needs. There are some loud voices that don’t like what we do, but we don’t let that affect our ambition. We make sure we get it right by working with the local guys.

What impact have the projects had on their member businesses?

It’s really exciting seeing our members progress and thrive. Sixteen of the businesses from Pop have now moved on to run a sustainable business. Kricket was at Pop for two years and has now moved to Soho and two other sites - they started out here as just two friends. Then there’s Sarah who created Make, Do and Mend, a haberdashery and vintage clothing store. She’s now got a front unit at Pop and is looking to find a bigger site elsewhere. Reprezent Radio were really struggling when we met them, but we helped them reduce their rent to a third of what it was previously by finding them a cheaper space, and got them a partnership with Adidas to fit out their studio. Now they’re training a thousand local kids a year and have a site in Peckham.

 And what’s it like to be part of the Make Shift team?

We were still just three people in September 2015. Charlie, our marketing lead, joined us in the December and then we grew to eight people in Spring 2016. Now, we’re at fifteen in the office and each site has five to ten people on it. It’s all about small groups of people coming together who have a shared sense of purpose. We’re big believers in self-management and giving people opportunities.

Have you noticed a change in the general population’s attitudes towards social enterprise and sustainability over the past three years?

Yes, attitudes have definitely changed towards social enterprise. Last year, BlackRock’s Larry Fink wrote about how companies should be creating long-term shared value for wider society, and we saw a huge shift after that. Back when I was in a job raising money for startups, talking to investors, they didn’t think about social enterprises as a fruitful investment; they thought about it in the same light as charities. Yes, Make Shift has a social impact - that’s why we’re here - but the business is also profitable and therefore a good financial investment. People are starting to realise this.

The business has to be sustainable and you have to earn a living - you can’t always rely on being a charity to get the desired impact. Thankfully, people are more willing to invest now and I’m excited to see where Make Shift and its projects go over the next five years.

What advice do you have for social enterprises who are starting out on their own journey?

Start with a purpose and think about who it is you’re trying to help and how. Don’t try to help everyone at the same time. Stay focused. And make sure it makes money, properly. If you want to be taken seriously, it needs to be solid financially without compromising the principles which helped you start in the first place. But don’t shy away from making money. You need to have resources, proper resources.

Finally, what is your favourite sustainable product at the moment?

Adaptavate, founded by Tom Robinson, makes low-carbon construction products for healthy buildings and inhabitants, which are also good for the environment. Not only that, the products outdo other market-leaders in terms of performance. He gets that sustainable materials need to be as functional and cheap as traditional ones. Quality has to be as good, price has to be as good and innovation has to be as good as the conventional products and companies.


Talking to James, it’s clear he’s on a mission that he truly believes in. By enabling the talent and creativity of local entrepreneurs to blossom, communities become richer, more sustainable and more vibrant - you can see it happening and the research is there to support it, too. And we’re glad that James isn’t deterred by a few sceptics, because the effects of Make Shift’s projects are wider than just providing a place for yuppies to go on a Friday night. James’ community-led model is a viable way to create a happier community in which to live, work and thrive. And, what’s more, it helps exciting new businesses get off the ground and reach new heights.

So next time we head to Pop Brixton or Peckham Levels, we’ll think a bit differently about what it is we’re buying into. We’ll engage more with what’s going on and with the traders. And, if you insist, we’ll sip an extra locally-sourced craft beer or two (read: three) if it means we can help a great initiative and inspiring fresh talent to succeed.

Look out for Make Shift’s newest project, set to open in Hackney in 2019.

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