A major and in many ways, devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was its ability to quickly change the face of Oxfordshire’s town centres and city centre, driven by essential physical distancing measures there was a sudden decrease in footfall and people’s spending opportunities.
However, a major project – backed by funding secured by OxLEP during the pandemic – has made a significant impact in readdressing this issue, faced across the county.
The ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…’ project – led by Makespace Oxford in partnership with a range of local organisations, managed and commissioned by Oxford City Council and backed by Oxfordshire’s district councils – is just one of the projects within the £8.4 million- investment secured by OxLEP via the Government’s Getting Building Fund tackling this issue head on.
Launched in February 2021, this critical funding has been used to give Oxfordshire businesses and communities a boost following the pandemic.
‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire...’ has been set-up to transform underused space in Oxfordshire’s urban centres, whilst creating a more sustainable and inclusive local economy.
Despite the number of vacant units on Oxfordshire’s high streets steadily increasing in recent years, there has been no shortage of enterprising people and organisations in need of affordable space – however a range of structural barriers exist which make it extremely challenging for these groups to access space.
Since ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…’ launched in early-2021, the project has worked to identify, secure, fit out and let vacant units to local, independent and community-driven organisations on short-term or ‘meanwhile’ leases. Not only does ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire...’ support independent organisations and the local economy, but it has also diversified Oxfordshire’s urban centres, giving people even more reasons to visit.
In a bid to transform vacant high street buildings into affordable places for small purpose-driven businesses and start-ups to work and connect, ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…’ was backed by OxLEP via £1.9 million-worth of Getting Building Fund investment.
WATCH: 'Lighting the Spark': Meanwhile in Oxfordshire...
By 2025, the project is on target to support 112 businesses into space, create or support 300 jobs, helping to build stronger local economies and communities and bring high streets back to life.
Makespace Oxford sees the ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…’ as an opportunity to ‘reimagine our urban centres’ and as a win-win situation for all involved, and a catalyst to generate wider systemic change.
As a landlord or property owner, the scheme presented an opportunity to have repairs and capital improvement works undertaken, reduce running costs and to be part of a trailblazing programme for change. For local, purpose-driven organisations, it presents an opportunity to secure affordable space on flexible terms, receive grants and support, connect with a wider community of like-minded organisations and grow their impact.
Speaking recently on OxLEP’s ‘OxTalks’ podcast, Andy Edwards – Co-founder and Executive Director at Makespace Oxford – said: “The Meanwhile in Oxfordshire programme gave us the opportunity to go from two hub spaces to bringing nearly 30 buildings back into use in 18 months – which is pretty much unprecedented – across the county.
“This was made possible through OxLEP and the investment we received from the Getting Building Fund, which went straight into refurbishing buildings. It has allowed us to respond to the crisis of the closure of many high streets, shops and retail spaces in urban areas by reanimating with locally-rooted, purpose-driven businesses.”
WATCH: OxTalks – series one, episode one: 'Creating Opportunities For All Communities'
One such organisation to benefit from the project is Down to Earth Cafe (pictured above) – an independent sustainable and zero waste cafe, located in the heart of the Old Stables, a hub space in Wantage town centre in what was a derelict former health centre revived as part of the programme.
Through ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…’, Down to Earth Cafe has been able to launch a new business, securing premises for the first time. The café offers delicious, healthy and affordable food, and uses as much surplus as is available in its recipes.
Down to Earth also provide regular ‘Community Cook-Ins’ - collective and sociable cooking sessions open to anyone, alongside healthy food training sessions and a weekly kids breakfast, homework club and environmental activities.
Its founder, Kate Farrington, said: “I had been wanting to get into the sustainable food sector for a while; I love bringing people together around food whether it is during cafe hours, chop and chat sessions or training.
“It was during lockdown, when I was collecting and packing food surplus bags ready for delivery to families at The Mix Community Fridge, I realised how much surplus food there is and the scale of need for it.
“The cost of living crisis is having an impact on everyone – at Down to Earth we want to make sure that the community space and affordable food is accessible to everybody as well as being committed to environmental sustainability.
“The community cafe is a lovely space and I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it if I didn’t have so much support and funding – the response from the local community and from Makespace has been amazing."
In its entirety, OxLEP’s Getting Building Fund overall programme is not only having short to medium-term impact, but is on course to have long-term impacts too – through: ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire…’ Makespace Oxford was able to secure leases and unlock spaces ranging from six months to 10 years, but it is also building the capacity for local organisations to buy spaces outright.
Working alongside private and public sector partners, OxLEP had focused on supporting six projects that collectively, by 2025, is set to lead to the creation of 640 new jobs, the safeguarding of 290 jobs, assisting 350 businesses and providing opportunities to around 500 new learners.