How Doncaster is giving power back to the people

4 Mar|John Harris

Activist Warren Draper takes a break. From Idler 65: Apr/May 2019

John Harris on the cultural initiatives – run by activists Warren Draper and Rachel Horne –  that are breathing life back into Doncaster

If you want to understand modern Britain, Doncaster is a pretty good place to start. Its history is rooted in coal-mining, but in the seemingly endless edgelands that surround the town, there are striking symbols of the future: vast distribution warehouses, the biggest of which is a mind-boggling Amazon “fulfilment centre” that covers over a million square metres.

We all know what these leviathans represent: work at its most soul-destroying, and the forces that are squashing high-street retail chains, in Doncaster just as much as anywhere else. So what to do? In this town, people are trying to find the answer. A creative, ambitious council is helping new, independent businesses set up in the middle of town, and pushing into a future beyond shopping: 2020 will see the opening of a new “culture and learning centre”, there’s a big new arts venue, and people talk about the idea of a town as a place to meet, drink, eat and create, rather than just buy stuff.

I spent time there in October last year, and was instantly fascinated – not least by Doncopolitan, which is a magazine, but also an ongoing project aimed at making Doncaster somewhere unique, where lives can be lived at a distance from the low-grade, low-wage work that is presented to people as their only option.

A community of people centred on its two prime-movers – the artist Rachel Horne and activist Warren Draper – constantly organise such events as a regular “culture crawl”, publicise the work of like-minded businesspeople, artists and writers, and present the outside world with an image of their home town that defies the usual stereotypes. “Donny is a working class town, but that doesn’t mean we’re idiots,” Rachel told me. “It doesn’t mean we’re not really creative or that we can’t have a stake in what happens in the town centre. You can see the hunger for doing something different that’s here, if we’re just given the chance to make it happen.”

Warren Draper on the birth of Doncopolitan

As part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, towns across the UK were invited to bid to receive city status. As a Doncaster resident and old-school anarchist, I argued that if you want to be a city, you need to act like a city. So I sent an email out to a list called Say Yes To The Arts, a council-run forum for Doncaster-based artists, proposing to create a magazine which treated Doncaster as if it were already a city, giving it an aesthetic sensibility and level of respect usually reserved for the more major metropolis.

I had one response. It was from an artist called Rachel Horne.

We met and found we both wanted to celebrate the region’s hidden talent and were both determined to prove, once and for all, that there is no such thing as a “cultural desert” – a slur often aimed at Doncaster during that time. And so Doncopolitan, a free arts and culture magazine for Doncaster, was born.

Having zero resources, the magazine started out as a blog and then became a radio show hosted by Rachel and her friend Jo Carline, a local artist and café owner. During this time, we created a number of projects to help illustrate our ideas. This included a series of pop-up arts and storytelling events, which were power-down, DIY and ecologically friendly and a group called Doncaster Urban Growers – or DUG – who grew food on guerrilla plots. We also founded the original version of PermaFuture, our social enterprise which focuses on using existing resources (often seen as waste) to build more resilient communities. It was PermaFuture who brought Idler gardening guru Graham Burnett to Doncaster to teach us about permaculture.

Despite some initial resistance – South Yorkshire is so notorious for its near-pathological cynicism we were even accused of being “too positive” – the magazine was beginning to make its mark. The Doncopolitan studio on Copley Road, Doncaster’s answer to Brick Lane, became a focal meeting point for local creatives, and Rachel’s driving energy forced even the most reserved and cynical artists to realise their dreams.

By the end of 2015, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council’s chief executive and total girl boss, Jo Miller, had subscribed to Doncopolitan and asked to meet us. She told us that she used the term “Doncopolitanism” in council meetings to describe the process of change and said that she wanted to us to help “funkify” the place. Never one to miss an opportunity, Rachel used the meeting to pitch our idea for an upcycled market garden designed to help combat the problem of food poverty and food deserts, and so another project, Bentley Urban Farm was born.

Bentley Urban Farm is an upcycled market garden which uses discarded resources to repair and maintain a disused former horticultural training centre. We teach people how to grow edible plants and provide affordable fresh, local, healthy produce to those living in food poverty. Using the permaculture principles we learned from Graham Burnett, we demonstrate that everything we need for a better life is already right here, often littering our road verges and public green spaces. The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

A longer version of this piece appears in Idler 65: Mar/Apr 2019, available to buy online and in bookshops.