The Hive shares its 'secret': Founders of radical Hackney cultural experiment want to change planning law - and the world
PUBLISHED: 13:39 20 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:19 22 September 2017
After two and a half years, the Hive is nearing the end of its stay at a vacant Haggerston building. Co-founder Gee Sinha tells Emma Bartholomew about the group's vision of changing planning law - and the world.
“There are so many things that have happened here. It’s been a bit mind boggling.” So says Gee Sinha as he welcomes the Gazette into the four-story building now known as The Hive in Kingsland Road, around the corner from Haggerston station.
“We’ve been minding our own business without making a song and dance about what we are trying to achieve here,” he adds, excited to be finally speaking to the press after keeping tight-lipped for two-and-a-half years. “We wanted to collect a body of evidence.”
Many might be under the impression – as we were at the Gazette – that the Hive was little more than an event space. In fact, it was more than that: a radical cultural experiment set up by seven people to prove the benefits of a cultural and social space occupying a building. Their not-for-profit company, Respace Projects, was set up to help others follow suit. And they are about to launch similar projects in Islington, Camden, Newham and Southend.
Two and a half years ago, Respace Projects signed a six-month contract with landlord Michael Gerrard. Using waste building materials, paints and furniture they found on the streets, and a budget of £250, they converted the empty building into a community centre.
Between one and 20 volunteers – or “crew” – have been living on the third floor and in return donating 16 hours a week to run the other two floors.
They don’t pay rent or rates, but event goers’ donations – which range each week from nothing to £1,000 – cover electricity, waste and water bills. They use food restaurants and shops would otherwise bin.
Since the start they have amassed “a set of statistics” charting their achievements: that is, holding 50 exhibitions for underprivileged artists, fundraisers for 60 organisations, and generating more than £150,000 for other causes. They’ve gathered “three full floors” of donations to drive to refugees in Calais. There have been fire dancing displays, tribal shamanic water rituals, breath workshops, gong baths, a skateboard park built on the second floor and six visiting Buddhist monks from the Dalai Lama’s monastery who made a sand mandala to bless the building.
“If that can be achieved by one little bunch of people working together, imagine what can be achieved if people did that in 10pc of the 80,000 empty buildings in London,” said Gee. “That would be 8,000 hives in London, each one offering free space and free time and collaboration and learning and sharing.
“On a personal level I came to this to create free spaces in which all the resources I could see were being wasted around me in society were being given to people who most needed them – whether it’s money, time or space. It seemed we needed to give resourceful people resources and we would see solutions to our social problems grow.”
Gee is animated about the “life-changing things” he’s seen happen here, and there are “too many to mention”. Off the top of his head, he recalls: “We saw hundreds of people processing down the street with the Tibetan monks. We saw the totem pole raised in the front yard made out of tyres and did a Red Indian ceremony. Calais, also, because of the sheer number of people and the size of the donations – it was emotional.
“But then we’ve had internal wranglings and the problems of people living in the same space – a different kind of energy and vibe we’ve had to learn how to deal with as an organisation.
“It’s been hard and trying at times but there’s always been this beauty about moving forwards.
“One day we were having this massive directors’ meeting about the future of the organisation and whether it should carry on. That day when we were deciding the fate of this organisation a swarm of bees settled in the tree outside the door – for one day. Just one day. I thought that was incredible.”
Mission to change planning law
By changing planning law, the founders of the Hive want to provide an alternative to the so-called “property guardian” industry – which charges people rent for occupying empty, often less-than-ideal buildings.
They are calling on local authorities to create a classification called “respace”. It would allow any social group with “a mission to do good” access to an empty building for a limited time with the landlord’s agreement.
Under a contract, tenants would not pay rent. But incentives for the owner would mean not having to pay costly empty building rates, and knowing the building would be maintained and kept safe.
“It’s a way to get around squatting, and a new way of using empty buildings in a productive way,” said Gee.
“Squatting can be productive but it can also be incredibly destructive. There is no control over what an outcome will be because there are no controls – it’s all very anarchistic. There are a lot of people running illegal parties or using empty buildings to store ill-gotten goods or just taking the buildings to charge landlords to leave. To me that’s criminal activity.
“As an organisation we are still trying to work out how you get laws changed, but as a lobby group we have shown that the system works.”
At the end of a tenancy, the theory is buildings will be handed back in good condition. On Friday volunteers at the Hive were demonstrating this by diligently clearing out the second and third floor to hand back to the landlord who will convert them into luxury flats. The Hive will remain on the first floor for at least another six months, while the kitchen will be turned into a pop-up restaurant for aspiring chefs.
Gerrard, the landlord, has been so happy with the Hive he has extended the initial six-month contract by two years. Testament to their good relationship is the painting he commissioned outside which says “don’t worry, bee happy” – a nod to the Hive’s name and a “surprise present” to his tenants.
“This isn’t about living,” said Gee. “The living is part of it, but it’s a way of life. It’s about looking at the world and how as people we can make art and entertainment and teach each other really useful stuff. The mission of Respace is to make that possible by trying to get regulations loosened so small organisations can take advantage of things that property guardians or charities can.”