Q&A | Tom Gillespie on creating an urban commons in Manchester, with Partisan

Tom Gillespie is a founding member of Partisan, a collective and community space for socially-minded people and projects in Manchester. The group host events and meet-ups, and provide a work base for organisations like Global Justice Now. Tom is also an urban geographer, and by day lectures in international development at the University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute. Sarah found out more.

What is Partisan? How did it start?
Partisan is a co-operatively owned and managed art and social space in Central Manchester. The idea originally came out of a group of about half a dozen people meeting up in a pub. Some had a background in organising music events and were a bit frustrated with the venues that were available, and they liked the idea of trying to set up their own music venue, which was owned and managed by the people who would put on gigs, the people who would play there, and the people that would go and listen to music.

Some people had a background in activism, and they were really conscious of the fact there weren’t many places to meet in Manchester if you were an activist group. People often paid a lot of money to meet in places like the Friends Meeting House, and that’s not really sustainable if you don’t have any funding. So there was also a desire to create a space where social justice groups could basically meet up and do events for free.

We came up with the basic concept, and the name – Partisan – and advertised a public meeting on social media. This was in January 2016, it was a way of testing the waters to see if there was interest. We didn’t know who was going to turn up, or how many people, but about 50 people came to the first meeting. We were like, this is pretty cool – there’s obviously a lot of interest in something like this in Manchester. From there it’s just built really.

We first managed a temporary space in a disused bank building in Central Manchester in the summer of 2016. That went really well, so we decided to raise some money and find a permanent venue in the city centre. That took about a year. Eventually we found a space, and we’ve been there for about six months. It’s two floors – the basement is a flexible venue space, and the first floor has another meeting room space, and offices, which we rent out to a range of different individuals and groups, including a women’s asylum seeker group, and a development NGO called Global Justice Now.

The Partisan space in Cheetham Hill, Manchester

We generate revenue from putting on music events and asking people to sign up to become members, and also renting out office space. That allows us to then provide free space for social justice organisations, and grassroots arts organisations who don’t have funding. The model is based on a cross-subsidy.

Did you reference similar spaces elsewhere when you were deciding how to structure the collective?
People sometimes call us a social centre. But we’re not so keen on that label, because some of us have experience of anarchist social centres, that were around in the 1990s and the naughties. While those spaces served a useful function, our experience of them was that they were a bit sub-cultural. If you weren’t an anarchist, or you weren’t a vegan, you often felt a bit out of place. They felt a little bit like radical left ghettos. What we want to try and create is a space that is a lot more inclusive, and a lot more appealing to people that aren’t already signed-up leftists.

We’ve taken our inspiration from a new generation of DIY spaces that have started to pop up around the country. There’s DIY Space for London, which is a co-operatively managed music venue in South London. Then there’s Wharf Chambers, which is a co-operatively managed bar and music venue in Leeds. In terms of how we organise ourselves, we’ve taken a lot of advice and inspiration from those examples.

Do you have links with those places?
Yeah, when we were first getting started and we were trying to constitute ourselves as a co-operative, we spoke to those two venues a lot and got a lot of advice on how you go about setting yourself up as a co-operative. They let us look at their governing documents, that dictate how you operate. They were really, really helpful. I think we feel like we’re part of a network, of emerging co-operative cultural venues around the country.

Does there happen to be a directory of these types of spaces?
It would be great to try and formalise those relationships a bit more and create a network of spaces that were trying to do the same thing, so that we could provide support for each other, but at the moment it’s more about informal relationships.

I guess support is a key word, because you’re all doing this – I assume – as well as paid work. It must get quite demanding sometimes. How big is the co-operative, and who’s involved?
We have a dual structure. On the one hand we have the workers’ co-operative, that’s the body composed of the workers who work for Partisan. Not everybody in the co-operative gets paid for their work. At the moment we have three paid employees – they get paid part time, but they also do lots of unpaid hours on top of that. Then there’s other people in the co-op who we consider to be employees, because they do a set number of hours per week, and they have a series of responsibilities. But they don’t get paid for their time.

The other half of it is the collective, the body of members of Partisan. Anybody who buys a membership, and if you don’t have any money you can buy a membership for zero pounds. Anyone who becomes a member is part of the collective, and if you’re part of the collective you can attend monthly meetings and have a say about what goes on in the space.

“We want to create a space that is a lot more appealing to people that aren’t already signed-up leftists.”

These two bodies meet up and make decisions about what should happen in the space. The co-op is responsible for business decisions. It’s their responsibility to run the day-to-day management, and they do that on behalf of the collective. There’s a constant dialogue between the co-op and the collective, to try and balance out – on the one hand, making sure the interests of members are being met, but on the other hand making sure that we’re making business decisions that make the project sustainable.

For example, if the collective said: we want beer to be £1 a pint, the co-op would have a discussion about that and probably go back to them and say, we’ll try and make the drinks as cheap as possible, but if we do that we’re going to bankrupt the whole project.

There’s movement between the two bodies as well. Recently, a lot of people who are long term collective members have joined the co-op – so they’ve stepped up their level of engagement. There’s constant circulation between the two bodies, which is helpful because it means the people in the collective have a bit of insight into the realities of the business side of the project. But it also means the co-op doesn’t get out of touch with what members want.

What are some examples of events that you’ve hosted?
We’ve done a lot of music events; we have gigs, we have club nights. We had a New Year’s party which was programmed by Partisan members. Within the collective, people introduce themselves into working groups, and those working groups take responsibility for organising different aspects of the project. People that are interested in putting on events in the space can join the events working group and programme events.

Jon Bevan, Heads Up!

On New Year’s Eve we had bands and DJs downstairs. Then we had Partisan residents DJing upstairs. That was really good, it was a complete sell-out, and loads of people were trying to buy tickets secondhand on Facebook beforehand. Then on New Year’s Day we started again, at midday, and a promoter called Wet Play did a day party from midday to midnight. That was DJs like Ruf Dug and Kickin Pigeon, who are very big names in Manchester.

We also have political events. Momentum did a panel discussion with Paul Mason and Aaron Bastani from Novara Media, talking about the direction of the Labour Party. There are various campaign groups, like Greater Manchester Housing Action – they use the space for their campaign events.

There’s a lot of stuff going on, pretty much every day. I don’t even know what’s going on in there most of the time. It’s kind of crazy, it’s gone from being six people in a pub, and those six people knowing everything that’s going on in the project – to now it’s a really big organisation and I don’t know half of the stuff that’s going on. And I quite like that!

Were you involved with similar projects in London?
I’ve been involved in DJing and promoting electronic music events for about 10 years now, and I’ve always thought it would be really cool to set up my own music venue. But when I lived in London that just wasn’t a possibility, because rents are so high, and every tiny little bit of space is earmarked for development.

I’ve also been involved in various types of activism and campaigning since I was 18, 15 years ago. Having a physical space to organise in is really important. Firstly, because you just need somewhere to meet and do events – meeting in someone’s house is just not as good, you can’t fit that many people in. And going to the pub’s always a bit crap I think, as not everybody is comfortable being around alcohol.

Solution Hours, live at Partisan

It’s partly an important piece of infrastructure for organising, but it’s also an important piece of infrastructure for movement-building. Because if you have a hub in the city where there’s loads of different political and cultural stuff going on, and people are going to meet each other, a community will start to develop around the space. Relationships will build, people will start to cross-pollinate ideas, and that physical space then becomes the basis of a process of broader movement-building. That then has significance beyond the four walls of the space.

So yeah, it’s an idea I’ve had for quite a long time, but when I lived in London it never seemed possible. Whereas moving to Manchester, it felt like it was more possible – because, obviously, rents are lower. But also it felt like there was a need for something like it in the city. There are a lot of bars and clubs, but there wasn’t really anywhere that felt like it was the hub for grassroots stuff.

Which is surprising, given the nature of the city and the fact there are so many people who live here that are involved with social justice and activist projects.
Totally, and I think there has been stuff like Partisan in the past. There was a social centre called the Basement a few years ago. But at the time I moved to Manchester, in 2014, there wasn’t anything like that. Actually, there was a social centre in Moss Side called Subrosa that was just in the process of closing down. When that closed there was an obvious gap for something.

“It’s an important piece of infrastructure for organising, but it’s also an important piece of infrastructure for movement-building.”

When we actually started to look for a permanent space in 2017 though, it became apparent that loads of investment was flowing into real estate in Manchester. Loads of redevelopment was happening, and we started to think, shit. Manchester’s basically going the same way as London – are we even going to be able to find somewhere here?

Even though Manchester is still cheaper than London, you can see the same processes happening, which will make it more difficult to do things like Partisan in the future.

By day you lecture at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. What’s your field?
I do research on urban development and the politics of urban change. I’m interested in processes of urban development, and how they often lead to processes of displacement and dispossession – and how city dwellers contest and resist those processes. I’m particularly interested in a concept called the urban commons, which is basically the idea that through their everyday interactions with urban space, city dwellers create collective forms of property.

Read more about Tom’s research

I think Partisan can be understood as an example of an urban commons, because it’s a space in the city that is owned by everybody. Anyone can come and get involved and shape the space and turn it into whatever they want it to be. It belongs to everyone in Manchester, and I think that’s quite important in the context of a city where a lot of space is commodified and privatised, and is becoming increasingly expensive and exclusive.

There are a lot of questions at the moment around the development that’s happening. Who’s it for, and who can afford the new homes that are being built? Everyone knows about gentrification now, but there are a lot of question marks around how can we challenge it, or what are the alternatives to it? One way of creating alternatives is creating urban commons, spaces that are collectively owned and democratic.

Is there ever conflict within the collective? Do you have any processes for resolving it?
We have disagreements, and we discuss them, but we haven’t actually had too many problems with people being at odds and not being able to negotiate a solution. People generally seem quite flexible and listen to each others’ points of view and try and accommodate them.

We’ve had a couple of people that haven’t really understood what it means to be part of a collective process, and the fact that that means you can’t always do what you want to do, and you have to listen to other people. Ultimately, they haven’t stuck around. They’ve realised that it’s not for them, and they’ve left. The people who really get it are generally quite good at compromising, and finding ways of moving forward despite differences.

Dr Tom Gillespie is an Urban Geographer, and Lecturer in International Development at the University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute, and a founding member of Partisan. Follow him on Twitter.

Sarah Illingworth is Editor at Impolitikal, and Communications Officer for the Open University’s Learning and Teaching Innovation department (Translation lead). She has an MSc in Poverty and Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.