Rethought Space: Peckham Levels

6 Mar 2018

Meet James Leay, Managing Director and co-founder of Make Shift and former street food vendor, he’s part of the team behind one of the most exciting projects to hit South London in a long time. Peckham Levels, following close on the heels of Pop Brixton – the company’s debut enterprise which saw shipping containers spring up in Brixton to form a fun street-food, entertainment and shopping space – has taken an underused multi-storey car park and transformed it into an area for local artists and entrepreneurs. We speak to him about the importance of community, local people power and keeping things affordable.

James Leay at Peckham Levels ©Appear Here

With a background in hospitality – he ran his own stall, We Love Meat, for two years before stumbling upon Pop Brixton – James truly understands the demands of starting out on your own, “I loved it but it was a brutal life”. But it’s not just his food stall that has allowed him to make such a success of things so far. With two hugely popular venues and a third on the way, “We’re planning our third site which will launch next May on the Olympic Park”, it feels as though his entire career has been leading up to this point. “When I was 15, I was working for Whittlebury Park which ran a lot of events, and I just loved giving people a great time and creating.

I then worked for an investment network which helped entrepreneurs shape their businesses, pairing them with angel investors – I learned what makes a good business and how to structure a management team. After that I was the COO of an augmented reality company but realised I was much more into real maker and creator businesses that do tangible things.” He continues, “It was by chance that I found Pop Brixton. Carl Turner Architects had already won the bid and were working with Philippe Castaing who I knew from my tech days. It was exactly what I had been looking for, so I jumped in.”

Peckham Levels ©Appear Here

Undoubtedly a smart move. But what is it about Make Shift’s projects that mean they have been welcomed by local communities and not seen as a sign of gentrification gone wrong? “I believe that if we want to live better lives and go back to being proper communities we do that through empowering local people, finding talent that already exists in that community and giving them an opportunity.”

Talking to James, what becomes clear is how much he values local communities, “The more small businesses take ownership of their areas the better things will get. Small businesses buy their goods locally. At Pop [Brixton], 41% of all goods on the site are bought locally, which means another 40p going into the area for every pound spent. It’s this cyclical effect. Plus they employ locals, pay a living wage and don’t operate zero hour contracts. It’s all of these things that are the base of a strong community.”

Pop Brixton ©Make Shift

Value is something that comes up a lot with James, whether it’s the drive towards a more sustainable model, “the Peckham Levels team is very hot on sustainability. They banned all the plastic cups, straws. They have a goal to be a zero waste site”. He also wants to ensure that people aren’t priced out, either as vendors or locals enjoying the space, “we keep it as cheap and affordable as we can and if the site is a big success and everyone is making money then we make money on top of that and if it’s not we don’t.”

James also puts a lot of emphasis on social enterprise, “we have 10 units that are super cheap. They go to organisations like Reprezent Radio who works with the local youth and trains them in the media, art and CV skills etc. Or Bounce Back, a training charity that is taking people out of prison and teaching them how to do construction.”; and working with the right people, “You can’t apply for a space just like that. We ask if you’re local, what’s your idea, what makes it sustainable, is it going to grow? Are you going to buy and employ locally, pay the London living-wage and what’s your engagement to the community investment scheme? We make sure 75% are from the area.”

Screen printing at Peckham Levels ©Appear Here

And it’s this emphasis on the local community that means a lot of consultation happens before a project even begins. “Before we put pen to paper we spend about 3-4 months on the ground in the community listening, learning, understanding what the tensions are, what the opportunities are, who the local community groups are. And from that you get a sense of whether this place needs new work space or a music studio or something like that.” James continues, “you recognise the community that’s already there and build a space that reflects it and provides it an opportunity. 91% of our studios are occupied by people who live a 5 minute walk from that site. This is also why we hire our site team from the area as well, because when people come to Peckham Levels, they see Kwabena the community manager who’s lived there for 20 years. I am a big believer in keeping things local.”

James at Peckham Levels © Appear Here

But how to choose the right community to begin with? “We’re very picky. We tend to work in areas where there’s a lot of depravation and also loads of entrepreneurs and creatives coming there as well. Those two things come pretty much hand in hand.” Like Peckham for example? “Peckham is exactly the kind of community we want to work in: close to rail, a lot of talent but people are being blocked by the lack of opportunity.”

So where to next? “I’m really interested in areas like Wood Green or Wembley because they have a huge number of entrepreneurs there and a completely different community. But outside of London we look at sites in Bristol, Leeds and Manchester, and I’m very interested in small market towns as well and would love to bring a site like this there.”