With a network of more than one hundred local volunteers and an ambitious range of activities, Palmers Green Action Team has become one of London’s most inspiring examples of community-led high street regeneration.
In this case study, we speak to Däna Burstow and Liz Robinson from the organisation’s steering committee. Over the past couple of years, they have been involved with a number of community improvement initiatives, including introducing street art and tackling high street vacancies. These and other activities have successfully triggered the local community spirit and attracted more than 4,000 online followers. At their latest street market, hundreds of people came out to show their support, including local big-hit singer-songwriter Freya Ridings who surprised the crowd by staging an impromptu concert. Liz remembers this particular moment with great pride. “I’m delighted that we have been able to get to this point,” she states, “though it has taken time and patience to get here.”
Palmers Green Action Team was founded four years ago by a group of women who happened to cross paths through their activities in the local community. Claude, Justine, Dana, and Christine all shared a common sentiment that their town centre had a lot more to offer than what was currently on show. Moreover, they had the energy and motivation to do something about it.
“We have great buildings, great communities, a lovely park, and a great train station. What’s not to like?”
Meeting up in a local café to discuss a course of action, the four women decided to organise a street clean-up event. They also applied for a grant from DCLG (now DLUHC: Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) to help out with the cost of greening and cleaning. The grant they received empowered them to crystalise as a formal organisation, with a bank account, a written constitution, and their first significant initiative to look forward to. On the day of the clean-up, more than 100 people joined in.
“It was a really great launch event,” Däna recalls, “and quite unexpected. It generated an enormous amount of interest in the community and on social media.”
Since then, Palmers Green Action Team has grown into one of the country’s most inspiring examples of community-led high street regeneration. On a day-to-day basis, the 100+ person strong team is subdivided into a handful of focus areas, loosely steered by the small central committee, which Däna and Liz are both part of. Activities are organised via WhatsApp and carried out entirely by volunteers – mostly female.
“It’s only women who run the team. Women of different ages. Women who are mothers. Women who are retired. It didn’t intentionally end up this way – but it works, and we get stuff done.”
Many of these women also have full-time work or family commitments, so effective management is key. And, as it turns out, the most effective way to manage hundreds of passionate people is to just let them get on with it. “People have built up a great sense of personal responsibility, and they feel empowered,” Däna tells us, with Liz adding, “I think the thing that really works for us is that every person has autonomy within their own area of expertise.” As a producer, Liz is, for example, in charge of communication marketing, and media. Meanwhile, Däna, an ex-lawyer, handles contractual documents.
With this relatively informal setup, Palmers Green Action Team organises street markets, tree plantings, street art projects, and public realm improvements. They also have a ‘Trader Target Team’, dedicated to activating vacant properties by bringing new and desired businesses into the community, which fit in with existing independent retailers.
“We look to attract new businesses that will fit in with our existing high street independent retailers.”
Acting as a matchmaker of sorts, the team usually prepares a pitch deck for the business in question whilst simultaneously researching suitable vacant units. The pitch deck is designed to communicate Palmers Green’s chief attributes and competitive advantages and may even include testaments of community support solicited through the group’s online channels. Meanwhile, the search for space involves calling up agents and taking meetings with landlords. If everything aligns, the Trader Target Team will progress to making the necessary introductions.
“The Trader Target Team is about finding businesses that we’d like to see in our community (…) and helping them into vacant spaces on our high street.”
At the point of writing, three businesses have successfully been introduced to Palmers Green in this way: a haberdashery shop (Stitch), a bakery (Holtwhites), and a social enterprise (Philanthropy CIC).
But of course, things are rarely as easy as they sound. With the bakery, it took the team three attempts to find a space with reasonable lease terms. When negotiations fail, it is usually a matter of cost – more specifically, the cost of rent. “We could have brought twice the number of businesses to Palmer’s Green,” Liz reflects, “if property values weren’t so inflated.” Sadly, one dream for a local cinema has recently been forced to go on hold, after years of lobbying. Even with the community’s and the Council’s support, the business case just would not stack up.
Ironically, the more successful the team is in bringing community life back to the high street, the harder it might become for them to achieve this very ambition; in a market-led economy, property prices tend to increase alongside neighbourhood improvements.
“We have no interest in causing gentrification. We just want to make the best high street we possibly can for the people who live here. This is about giving ourselves better options – the best places to shop, to meet, to play, to enjoy, right here on our doorstep.”
As the local council, Enfield has an important part to play in protecting the community’s interests against the effects of gentrification, ensuring that social investments are also returned as social value.
Since launching, Palmers Green Action Team has received both funding and ample support from the council for a number of initiatives, including the recent activation of Devonshire Square. It is easy to see why the council would be excited to collaborate with a well-functioning, self-organised community group that is capable of raising funds and resources to improve the local environment. And yet, it is equally important to remember the limitations of this setup. “Sometimes I get the feeling that the Council would like us to do more,” Däna muses. “But the fact of the matter is that we can only do what we have the capacity for, and we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.”
For both Liz and Däna, Palmers Green Action Team is first and foremost about local people investing time and energy in their own community and in each other. Even if the team are happy to collaborate with the local council, they do not volunteer to serve the council’s needs – all they want is to help Palmers Green High Street thrive and return it to the heart of the community.