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Sweat Equity: A New Currency for Communities

05/02/2014 13:26 GMT | Updated 07/04/2014 10:59 BST

Stained mattresses, burnt out TV's and piles of steaming unmentionables. Every neighbourhood has its dumping ground. Most people know someone who's complained to their council, but how many of us have considered clearing up the mess ourselves? With local councils stretched for money, it's very likely our communities will continue to play chicken until it's almost too much to bear. Unless, however, we emulate the simple sequence of events which led to the creation of New Cross's most cherished communal spot. The Hill Station Café.

When people think of New Cross, they might think of a distant South East London suburb, populated by extremes and impossible to get to. Or worse, they very rarely think of New Cross at all. There's something to be said about the lack of knowledge of South East London, but perhaps that gives the region its charm. Hidden gems of communities comprised of stunning parks, outstanding architecture and a spate of gastro pubs. Stretching from Peckham to Blackheath and even as far as Beckenham (yes, some London boroughs do overlap with Kent postcodes), these communities are all too often overlooked.

New Cross is no exception. Yet, tucked away beside Telegraph Hill Park, is a blueprint for other communities to follow. What was once a damp and derelict under croft, is now a centre for social change, creativity and thriving local ownership. And the community has themselves to thank for it.

In recent years, local authorities' budgets have been stretched to breaking point as spending cuts have reached their lowest since World War Two. Local communities wanting to see change have looked to change things themselves.

The community of New Cross Gate established Bold Vision, a local charity with a goal to turn a disused car park into a thriving community meeting place - The Hill Station Cafe. The charity organised fundraising activities, encouraged residents to donate what they could and rounded up locals who were willing to get physical and contribute hard earned 'sweat'. Co-manager Stephen Carrick-Davies said:

"We initially asked people to give £200, which is a lot of money but if you live locally and you love where you live, I think that's the sort of investment people can make, over time. But if you couldn't give that £200, you could give time, what we call, 'Sweat Equity' "

Neighbours helped dig out the floor, build the decking and decorate the interior. Some locals even donated their craft. Engineer John Hamilton said "I live just around the corner, I'm a heating engineer so when the Hill Station was built, I put in the under floor heating as one of my contributions to the building."

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£60,000 and a whole lot of sweat later, The Hill Station was built. It's now the community focal point and social hub, with many residents admitting to visiting daily. Neighbours are getting to know each other instead of awkwardly waving from doorsteps. Choirs have a new place to belt out harmonies, summertime barbeques take over the nearby streets and the café has even opened its doors to silent disco-ers. It's also become a place to learn basic electric and plumbing techniques by providing The People's Polytechnic with a new tutorial venue.

Local resident Alan Porter explains, "It's all for the community and it's just fantastic, it's all walks of life now."

A born and bred local, Alan has seen the area dramatically change over time. "It used to be a rough area, very rough. We used to have a lot of trouble up here, mostly from teenagers, but since this has started, we don't get it. It's fantastic, and everyone says it. It's a miracle what they've done. You couldn't get any better."

With such a dramatic improvement to the area in such a small space of time, Alan might just be right.

The café prides itself on supporting local businesses; buying food from local butchers and bakers as well as running a pop up shop in the corner of the café. Homemade jam, bespoke jewellery, children's clothing and bath products are just some of the items on offer. The pieces are hand made by thirty-five locals who each volunteer their time behind the counter.

The Hill Station also employs nine staff, four of which were previously unemployed. They now have the added ease of working to walk, something we all may envy. Local resident and regular customer Cleo said: "I love that the profit goes back into the community, it feels like you have a sense of ownership and belonging."

With the rise of big brands infiltrating and subsequently defining our high streets, communities are increasingly looking for identities. Places they can call their own. By coming together and being a part of every decision made in the establishment of The Hill Station Café, the community of New Cross has derived an identity. Co-manager Stephen said:

"Our high streets and our communities are monopolised by Tesco's and Costa's. We don't want Tescoification. We don't want any more big company's coming and telling us how to live our lives. I think this is a really good example of running a café that employs local people, has an ethical standpoint and makes sure people can actually raise money and earn money locally."

In one way or another, the residents of New Cross Gate have played an integral role in making real change and keeping the community café an on-going success. It doesn't belong to a corporation or a big investor, it's their community café and it's evolving with them, catering to all echelons and ages. Establishing a sense of ownership has empowered the residents, who take pride in maintaining its wellbeing and ensuring it remains to be as inclusive and motivational as possible. If The Hill Station can inspire other communities to turn their complaints into fully functioning community hubs, it will have achieved all it set out to do.