Jennie Bailey tells the tale of a community in the north of England that is training its young people for the green jobs needed in a world threatened by unfettered climate change.
Imagine: a former further education building left in disrepair with a well-known budget supermarket willing to buy the land that the building stands on. Recall: the West Yorkshire town, Todmorden – it’s the home of Incredible Edible, the now global movement to “grow our own” in spaces that have been left otherwise empty. Throw in: Calderdale Council, strapped for cash but not unwilling to try new things – it was one of the first councils to declare a climate emergency. Then watch as a spirited public campaign to “save our college” mobilises and, finally, a new provision for formal, and informal, education and learning that is run by the community for the community is created.
But why would a campaign group want to save a neglected 1950s college building?
Parts of northern England are in economic decline and like many other small towns, Todmorden is facing a developing crisis. There are the usual dispiriting markers of decline: local bank branches are shutting down; closed-down shop premises are left empty; and the Royal Mail sorting office closed its well-used site in the town and relocated some of the staff to the Rochdale branch several miles away. But, most importantly, the local high school’s sixth form provision closed, meaning any of the town’s young people wishing to study A levels would need to travel. And with the closure of the college, any remaining opportunities for post-compulsory learning and training were removed. This could have jeopardised the future of this market town that has a history of punching above its weight.
This could have jeopardised the future of this market town that has a history of punching above its weight.
In autumn 2016 Todmorden Town Council and the community of Todmorden learned that Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council (CMBC) wished to sell off the former community college building to Aldi to make way for its new store carpark. The Town Council commissioned a report from Upper Valley Renaissance – an organisation that specialises in community and local business resilience projects – to produce a pre-feasibility report looking at options. The community started a petition against the demolition led by Todmorden’s Incredible Farm and the School of Natural Building and so a campaign group was born.
The campaign group, Save our College, argued that it could present an alternative, viable business and community case to the council to demonstrate that the building would be a valuable asset to the town. In January 2017, there was a meeting of Todmorden Development Board which was attended by more than a hundred people including local businesses and residents. The pre-feasibility report was presented and yet the development board voted to support the sale to Aldi despite vociferous objections from the floor that showed how Todmorden was very much against that decision.
In fact, the outcome of the meeting gave a great boost to the petition and garnered further support for the Save Our College campaign. At the instigation of the Town Council, Upper Valley Renaissance applied to CMBC to have the college listed as an Asset of Community Value. To the campaigners’ surprise and delight the listing was granted. The bid was accepted and a team quickly produced a workable business plan. It all came together for the deadline of mid-November 2017 and, in January 2018, CMBC accepted the bid.
Todmorden Learning Centre and Community Hub (TLCCH) – a charitable community benefit Society – was set up to take over the management and running of the college when the leasehold negotiations were completed. On 12 February 2018 – a year after the first campaign meeting – CMBC rubber stamped the decision; the leasehold could be managed by TLCCH.
Alas, personalities do clash in community ventures, and relationships on the initial board became strained with two members resigning. Then, in September 2018 there was an attempted takeover by a small vocal group that had built up around one of the former members. Its move was defeated at a general meeting by a majority vote of community members.
It seeks to build a beacon of best practice from which others around the country could draw inspiration.
Negotiations, as with anything, take time including managing the transfer of some of the former council staff. The TLCCH committee was scheduled to take over the building in April 2020, however, the Covid-19 pandemic stopped play. The keys to the building were finally handed over on 31 March 2021 to TLCCH.
The vision of Todmorden Learning Centre and Community Hub was to put the climate crisis at the centre of its thinking so that all activities at the college would contribute in some way or another to building a sustainable and socially-just, life-long learning community. It seeks to build a beacon of best practice from which others around the country could draw inspiration and develop their own community spaces.
TLCCH has focused on three areas of community ownership for the college: education, business, and community. For small businesses and freelance entrepreneurs there are affordable rentals with the opportunity for offices and co-working areas for lone workers who, during the pandemic, had discovered the benefits of working from home but were missing human contact and networking opportunities.
There are formal and informal education opportunities within the space including a diverse range of courses with sustainability and social equity at their heart, and opportunities for learning in areas including arts and crafts; cookery; personal development; and well-being.
The college provides space and opportunities for local residents to meet, chat, learn, be creative, artistic, innovative, and energetic – the original college gym hall has been restored to functional use.
In September 2021 the Climate Challenge College, funded by the National Lottery Climate Action Fund, will open its doors to its first students to begin to help realise some of its vision. The Green Futures course includes natural building, regenerative farming, renewable energy generation, and repair and reuse. From saving the college to changing the world.
For information about TLCCH see tlchub.org.uk and to learn more about the Climate Challenge College’s Green Futures course see: www.climatechallengecollege.org