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Common People: Reclaiming The Land

In recent times, the word ‘common’ has really lost its original meaning. ‘Commons’ refers to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of society, including natural materials such as air, water and a habitable earth. Common land, for example, is land that is not owned privately, that the public have certain rights over or is owned co-operatively. A person who has rights over common land is called a commoner. This stems from medieval England, when common land could be used to graze cattle. Although common land still exists in England, there’s a very limited amount left because of privatisation for profitable purposes. We are losing many of our rights as citizens. Thankfully, today we have more commons within a cultural context – literature, music, art, design, fashion, film, radio and TV, journalism and heritage sites. These are all things that we share. You can’t privatise something that lots of people enjoy and create. They are the things that we control – the culture that we create that promotes individuality and revolts against privatisation and corporate control. They are the things that influence change and keep our culture fresh and exciting. Art is one thing that people will always be able to keep and control because it comes from inside us. ‘Commoners’ living in a city should have rights and opportunities. The council hardly owns any property anymore because of lack of money, and so cut-throat business is killing our high streets. Landlords need not reduce rent prices to reflect footfall or what is affordable in a recession; they can wait it out in the knowledge that a corporate chain will pay full rent. Chains anonymously apply for planning applications to avoid public opposition and will often occupy space with the purpose of squashing independent retailers. We are stuck with a manufactured culture that tries to influence what we want by giving us no other option. The only way for us to push independent business is by collaborating with people who have common interests and shared views, because then we are a force to be reckoned with. Until we fully understand these concepts and work together, we will continue to lose control of the places we live in. The Dead Space articles in Now Then are brilliant, because they have addressed and revealed heritage spaces and historic buildings that are being left to rot. ‘Community Right to Bid’ has been introduced to try and transfer local assets to communities. If you identify your local pub or sports centre as a community asset it will be licensed by the council and then if it goes up for sale, the surrounding community has six months to buy it. They can apply for a capital grant of up to £500,000 to stop it from being sold on or privatised. A lot of listed buildings in Sheffield were bought up by private owners a long time ago, but we still have the opportunity to use them while they’re sat empty and try to save them from being reclassified, demolished or turned into flagship stores. The more we learn about planning rules, the more in control we are. Aristotle once said, “The society that loses its grip on the past is in danger, for it produces men who know nothing but the present, and who are not aware that life had been, and could be, different to what it is.” As a process of control, there is nothing better than erasing the past from people’s minds. Our old buildings are extremely important and we should be fighting to keep them, to use them and restore them, instead of knocking them down and turning them into shopping malls. We need reminders of the past. We need them to be there so we can walk past and think about our connection to history and the traditions that make us individual. Common People is a community interest company set up to address all these issues and more. We hope to eventually help with the community purchase of buildings and the occupation of listed sites, but for now we’re starting small with empty shops. We want to bring together likeminded people to create a strong creative social force that can oppose and start making serious changes. We are heavily influenced by the Occupy movement’s values and concepts. We want to push people together who can learn, teach and share ideas for a sustainable future. We are trying to find positive solutions for landlords, working with them to give local brands space to trial their businesses in prominent locations and to find an independent trader who will sign a full lease. We hope our website will become a hub of social activity, where people can identify who’s doing what in Sheffield, collaborate with each other and discuss ideas, worries and aspirations. We will be promoting Common People as an agency, so everyone with an account will be able to access the benefits of being involved. If you are interested in future pop-up shops, to make the process fair we will be putting out briefs for each one. If you want to receive the briefs, please get in touch and sign up for an account. If you are interested in any of these issues and want to chat, please email us on commonpeoplecic@gmail.com and we’ll meet up. Felicity Hoy is a director of Common People, a community interest company set up to support independent, social and creative enterprise in Sheffield. common-people.co.uk )

Next article in issue 66

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