Max Power's Playtower

Guest columnist: Max Calo

At last, a break from your Brockley Central correspondents quibbling over brick work.

Regular reader, commenter, blogger, artist and swimming pool-campaigner - Max Calo - has done what many others have talked about doing and then not done. He has written an article for Brockley Central about a local issue he cares passionately about.

Max mentioned yesterday that, frustrated by the slow death of one of Lewisham's finest landmarks - The Ladywell Playtower - and he had an idea that could offer it a lifeline.

Rather than risk it being swamped with exchanges in Japanese, arguments about cats, recipe suggestions and all the other things that make Brockley Central special, we've given him his own guest column to share his idea:

Playtower future vision

I first had this idea a couple of years ago, just reflecting on the potential of the Playtower building when this thought for a business to be based there came.

What I see is a birthing clinic providing the comfort of the home birth experience to those women that for one reason or another can't have a home birth but don't fancy a hospital birth either and are prepared to pay something for a much better experience than what is on offer.

But I don't see only a place to give birth, I also imagine a variety of other birth related businesses, all based in the old Playtower building.

A one stop shop for the expecting woman and a place to look forward to give birth into. There must be a lot of women that don't feel comfortable with the idea of home birth and yet choose Hospital birth instead full knowing that they won't like that either. Maybe they don't live close enough to the hospital to feel really safe in case a complication arises whilst giving birth, this is the principal objection preventing women from choosing home birth and making them opt for the Hospital instead.

The Playtower is close enough to the Hospital to overcome this worry. That's what makes it suitable for this use. The old pool rooms could be divided into birthing suits, each with its birthing pool and with space for relatives to relax in comfort during the often very long wait. The woman could look up and see the sky through the Victorian skylight. Then there would be extra rooms where your mother or husband can go and sleep a couple of hours or even a full night. It would be a place that makes it the best possible experience for the woman and her family. And after giving birth, rather than being asked to leave, the woman would be allowed to rest as long as she wants, even days, together with her child, until she feels ready to go back home.

Alongside these features there could be prenatal courses, prenatal yoga, a shop, a library, counsel, all you can think of, as long as it's related to giving birth. And a cafe where food that's good for pregnant women is served and that would also serve food to the families there for the births. It has parking space, the bus stop is just outside, it's almost next door to Ladywell Station, the back of the building is very peaceful as it gives onto a very quite pedestrial alleyway and then the park.

This is a service that's missing and the Playtower is the ideal candidate for it. The location is perfect as is its solid period look. It is also a Council property that the Mayor said he wants to give back to the community. What do you think? Wouldn't this be a worthy addition to the local services or do you think that it would be better used as flats?

I think that all the services that could be hosted there would make it a very viable business even without big prices for the hire of the birthing suites. I think that the women of Lewisham deserve something like this. The business could be run as a non profit activity, paying well those that would work in it and reinvesting any surplus into the upkeep and enhancement of the centre so that after it starts activity it keeps on retaining the edge.

Eventual unused spaces could be rented to related businesses that would benefit from the trade that the centre itself would generate, again bringing in revenue to help run it.

Unfortunately the building is in a very bad shape and it needs millions to get to that point. But in the long run it could pay its ways, and if the Council would help in sourcing all the needed ingredients then it could be done. There are good reasons to do it, to revitalize the area, to bring an important historic building back into use, to add a missing service that would enhance the quality of life of many, to expand on the services already offered by the Hospital, to provide jobs.

This is only an idea, and it needs careful evaluation before thinking of trying it. That's why I'm happy to throw it into this den, to see it challenged by all that the distinguished inhabitants of this forum can throw at it. And if it manages to go through it with dignity then maybe it deserves to be acted upon.

What we like about this idea is that it would create something genuinely distinctive (and of course useful) - a centre of excellence in an area that has too few. It would build upon Lewisham Hospital's strengths as a teaching hospital (although the proximity argument could be undermined if the health service review recommends the labour ward's closure). Its ambition makes it very interesting, but also difficult. But it's certainly more interesting than suggesting we stick a cafe in it!

So what do you think?


max said...

Great thanks Nick, quite a relief to read that you appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

It is probably a good idea to run this by the medical professionals at Lewisham hospital. Get a view on the overall demand for this and how it might compliment existing services. Would the catchment area covered be the same? How does it fit with any existing strategic development plans? A dialogue with the SHA, maybe? Check that there is not a similar plan in the pipeline for one of the polyclinics that are planned.

There is an oracle out there somewhere to consult. Not sure if you will find it here, but you never know.

Brockley Nick said...

Max, you had me when you mentioned comfy chairs for waiting members of the family.

max said...

Sure, doctors and especially midwives, they are those that could benefit most from this.

Maybe (where's my tose tinted glasses) the presence of a project like this would be an argument for retaining the maternal ward at Lewisham Hospital.

On polyclinics plans are not that defined yet, I think that this would be exactly the right moment when a proposal like this could be coordinated within that framework.
By chance I was present at last Healthier Community Committee at Lewisham Council and saw a presentation on polyclinics.

max said...

Nick, that's something for the brochure, a picture of an hospital seat next to that of one from Habitat.

Anonymous said...

Donning my socialist, organic working class hat... When you say 'willing to pay a bit extra' You wouldn't want it to encourage a two tier system?

(having said that I get BUPA cover through work so I'm a bit of a hypocrite)

max said...

Well it would need to be financially viable, so yes to inclusiveness and as a not for profit community owned facility it would have to provide value for everyone and by offering a range of services it would surely do that, but it would also offer quality services at a premium for those that want to pay for them, that's where a good part of the revenue would have to come from.

betamatt said...

That sounds like an excellent idea and perfect for the Playtower (Birthtower?).
Now all you need is a local, wealthy investor with a child on the way...

The Cat Man said...

Criky. I'm actually quite impressed with the idea.

It is bold enough, innovative enough and more than feasible economically speaking that it might actually work. The 'proof will be in the pudding' so to speak - some sort of feasibility study needs to be carried out.

I can't think of a better philosophy - cherishing our past by bringing in life. Kind of idyllic.

Well done for the idea - You should become a councillor. Truely inspirational.

Pete said...

What are the NHS' views on waterbirths etc? I know less than nothing about them but in my (perhaps narrow mind) they are a bit "alternative". Is that how the NHS views them? That wouldn't necessarily preclude funding as the NHS has been encouraged to fund more alternative therapies recently.

max said...

Waterbirth is a completely mainstream method, highly recommended by everyone, I am actually puzzled as to why the Hospital has only one tank.

Anonymous said...

Max it's a great idea. there are quite a lot of mothers who use about Doula's as well - they might be good people to talk to about what is missing from the system so far. It might also be a good place for incorporating pre-pregnancy health and improving fertility through good food , fitness and relaxation etc. A bit like the pioneer centre was in the 30's.
It would be good/important to make sure that the services were accessible to all, perhaps by having a reduced fee, or a charitable bursury or something for people who can't afford it otherwise.
the real nappy people, nct etc could all be in there too...

max said...

That's great Fabhat, excellent suggestions. I just checked the Doula site and it's really the kind of things that's needed.
Keep them coming.

Thanks also to Andy and Betamatt.

Anonymous said...

I'll plonk this here as it may be relevent to the Playtower site.

Barry Quirk wrote a report about "Community-based Asset Transfer" which has been fully accepted by the government.

This is where a local community take on management and ownership of a public building at a peppercorn rent.

'Parker House' in Evelyn ward is due to receive £1m from the Big Lottery Aset Fund to refurbish the building for the council to transfer it to a local community groups.

It went before the Mayor last Wednesday (Item 7 Asset Papers July 9).

Earlier this year a question was raised about the future of the Playtower, The Mayor indicated there may be an announcement in the summer. Did he have asset transfer in mind?

The Playtower, Mortuary, Police Station AND the church halls can be considered individually or as whole, which may explain the delays?

Originally, the mortuary was due to close by the end of 2004 but it is still in use. There are rumours the church may wish to exploit part of their chuch halls site.

Is it worth considering moving St. Mary's School to the church side of the High Street and turn the school into almshouses?

I should stress none of this is formal and could be idol gossip, but food for thought?


Related to Max's idea I believe Lewisham has a very high teenage pregnancy rate and sex 'education' could tie in with what is proposed?

Anonymous said...

It is a grand Idea Max, but I wondering if it's a bit niche, a bit narrow in it's outlook. Although fulfilling some kind of need - and assuming this need isn't already being filled within a pretty wide radius - it would only serve people for a fairly limited time - during pregnancy and immediately after - so its community brief wouldn't really be met (unless I'm misunderstanding something), and of course it wouldn't serve me in the slightest, being a (late-ish) middle aged man with children having left home.

What about a Darby & Jones club for the ageing baby-boomers?

max said...

@ Anonymous 8:30
I read the Quirk Report last year when it was published and this proposal fits in perfectly with its spirit and also with the letter of some case studies.
The teen pregnancy and sex education issue is one that's very important and that this centre could help address, that really fits with the idea of a range of services to cater for all the different problems that pregnancy could bring to very different women.
I think that this point also expands on what Fabhat had suggested above, her suggestion of the Doura experience where trans-generational barriers are addressed and knowledge is passed through the generations is great.

Now that you mention it I remember of an attempt a few years of moving St Mary's school on the Church side of the road and into the Playtower, I didn't know that it involved the Mortuary too. I don't know if they are thinking of resubmitting. It may well be.

@ Anon 8:48
I think that this fits perfectly within a community brief, it's a "niche", but it's a big one and more then else it's one niche made of persons that needs special support at their time of their life.
We assume that basic provision is already met, but don't you think that there is room for improvement?
The provision that is out there is either NHS or private, a not for profit initiative that brings every possible aspect of provision for pregnancy under one roof would bring to the attention of women many opportunities that they may miss completely within the current provision.
Also, helping pregnant women you help more than one person at a time, a pregnant woman is at least two persons, although one has yet to be born.
Then there is her immediate family that would benefit from her wellbeing.
And as if suggested some provision is made for teenage pregnacy then that's absolutely care of the vulnerable and that is of great social value.
But of course there could be other proposals for the site that could well fit with the criteria and cater for middle age man with grown up children instead, but it seems to me that that is just another niche so you'd have to elaborate why it would be better to do that instead.

Anonymous said...

I'm very much in agreement with your aims Max, but I, and I'm sure a lot of people who'd be called upon to fund raise, would need to be convinced of such a need. But I am in no way being critical of your aim, far from it. To see the Playtower being used in a good way would be central to any argument.

But thinking back to myself being a prospective father, my wife and I sought various pre-natal 'experiences', from the local, to the 'oh god have I got to go there again' (me) in Maida Vale.

I think the catchment area for a project like this could well extend far beyond even South East London.

I haven't been around the building for some time (in fact, probably since I took my son there perhaps 15 years ago) so I can't remember exactly how big it is. Perhaps your scheme could occupy a part of the building - then what about turning another part of the building into a 'Museum of Lewisham', that may not be such a fanciful idea because it could cater for the children who've been delivered there in other parts of their life!

I know Museum's have a hard time of it (I do know, because I worked in museums for over 10 years, the Hornimam being one of them), and I'm sure there is more than enough information to make an informative and constructive range of displays *without* treading on the Horniman's brief.

all the best

max said...

It is possible that the building could be shared between different uses and that may well include a museum, but it wouldn't be a big museum because the building is sizable but not enormous and my proposal in itself involves it being shared by different activities, only that they must all have a common focus on birth.

I'm not opposed to having a completely different use in part of the building, if there was space enough then it's a good idea, but that is a thing that should be looked at with the plan of the building in front as part of the development of the business case. How much space do you need? Do you need it all? I can't answer to this now.

I would nevertheless suggest that the mortuary, that is a fantastic building and should soon be available too would make a better site for a museum even because it doesn't need renovation.
The problem of the Playtower is that it needs an activity with attached revenue stream to be viable, there's millions to be found and if it doesn't bring money in then it doesn't have much of a chance.

I agree though that it may well have a catchment area wider than Lewisham, after all you're in Ladywell in 15 minutes from Charing Cross and looking the other side from Kent, the railway provides a very useful widening of the horizon and if you're providing excellent services people would travel a bit to get there.

Anonymous said...

The idea sounds brilliant but not sure I can give much input as I haven't got much experience with child birth, but anything to get the old place back into use. Apart from aesthetic benefits, there's the environmental impact of demolishing an old building and re building with something new. "Recycling" this old place has got to be a good thing.

Not sure about the dig early in the article about exchanges in Japanese, about cats etc etc. I have seen that other people have a go at people who take discussions away from the core article. If you ask me, that's what's so great about BC - discussions go off at tangents and open up new avenues of thought. If you ask me it would be oh so dull if discussion following every article was tied to some unwritten "agenda" and not allowed to go outside the lines. This is not a Lewisham BC council meeting. I mean look at where the initial article about at risk buildings took us? To this idea.

I have one question relating to the building howver - why is it called the Play Tower? What was "played" there?

The Cat Man said...

Wow, someones been eating their ready brek this morning!

And I thought I was a moaning old man :o)

HH, I know you love my cats - theres a video on the suggest a topic thread now

Anonymous said...

I wasn't moaning... Haven't quite brought myself to watch that video yet. Bloody cats were screeching outside the front window again last night

Tressilliana said...

The Play Tower name comes from the time when the entire building (the habitable parts, anyway) was used as a playcentre of some kind. This came to an end in the early 90s, don't know when it started. It seems to have been used mainly for pre-school children. Originally it would have been called Ladywell Baths, I suppose.

Bea said...

HH – I don’t think Nick was suggesting that going off topic is a problem – in fact he emphasised that this is that makes “Brockley Central special”

Brockley Nick said...

Thanks Bea, that's exactly right. I wasn't criticising it, I consider it an honour that people have chosen BC as a suitable place to have these kinds of random conversations and I enjoy reading it.

Anonymous said...

I didn't like the Japanese exchanges, mainly because I couldn't read them.

Anonymous said...

Japanese? Thank god, I though I was dyslexic.

Tressilliana said...

It doesn't bother me if I can't understand what other people are talking about, occasionally anyway - in fact, I rather like it. It's lovely when people find shared enthusiasms/ experiences, especially unexpectedly. If I thought they were taking the opportunity to slag the rest of us off or to make us feel stupid for not understanding, that would be different, but I didn't see it like that at all.

Bea said...

In fact most of the exchanges were related to getting together for a drink at Jam Circus - which was unfortunately cancelled.

However, this has been rescheduled for tomorrow - so TJ, HH (anyone else) is it still on for 8.30?

The Cat Man said...

I got told off for going off topic so thats not strictly true.

I really think the idea of the Playhouse being a birthing centre is a good one. It should be a normal profit maximising company though. They will most likely still get grants/allowances for bringing in a building in disrepair and for maintenance.

Anonymous said...

Yeah sorry, misread and thought that someone was having a go at us for going off topic but it appears not. Re drinks tomorrow at 8.30pm, I'm still on! We don't have to speak Japanese all evening do we? That might be a bit pretentious....

Bea said...

... and would be a very short evening for me as I'd run out of things I can say in Japanese!

Anonymous said...

Me too probably. My Japanese ain't what it used to be when I lived there!

The Cat Man said...

If theres one thing worse then overhearing a conversation in Japanese (when you dont understand it) its overhearing a conversation about having a conversation in Japanese.

Ain't? What kind of a word is that?

God, I'm tired. I hate Mondays.

Anonymous said...

Bit moody are we Andy? "Ain't" is a fine word! This is Lewisham - you know what they say - when in Rome...

The Cat Man said...

yes, quite.

Anyone want any jerk chicken or curried goat?

I have a headache and my brain hurts! I'm being a complete idiot and booking my bike in for a gear overhaul too

What a completely random posting this is. Great, ain'it!!

Anonymous said...

The Boone Chapel in Lee High Road has recieved lottery funding to be repaired and used for commercial purposes.

max said...

It is true that it doesn't have to be not for profit but I suggest not for profit because:

- it would re-invest the surplus into the centre instead of giving it to somebody only because they own it;
- it pays workers well and it motivates them;
- it gives better guarantees to be kept it in its use either in perpetuity or at least for a very long time. In a private ownership with profit model it could be disinvested and sold for flats if the ownership thought that a quick buck was more interesting than a the service it provides;

A not for profit company is still a private company, only that it doesn't give profit out to its owners, all money collected go either into wages or back into the company.
In my idea there would still be an owner only that it would be a trust working on behalf of the local community. One could even have a popular subscription with people paying say £10 each and owning a small share of the company. The share would not give a profit but could still be sold on and crucially, would give a vote in a shareholders meeting that would still decide who runs the company.

Some extremely successful enterprises are not for profit, most recently in London Greenwich Leisure has shown what a not for profit company can do.

The Boone Chapel is a good example for historic buildings reclaimed but it also has some marked differences, mostly it's a rather small building and the use that it found - an architect studio - was probably the best that you could have got out of it.

The Cat Man said...

The flip side of this is that paying customers would probably expect a well maintained building.

The mainteance costs will be huge for a building of that type. If it becomes an issue of not for profit then the users of the premise will not be as demanding and opt for the 'increase the number of bums on seats' line of reasoning.

Both perfectly valid, but I would prefer high level of standard but for a lower number of occupants.

Reason being, I'm not sure how much demand exists out there...

...all subject to market research of course! Market research could disprove the opposite to what I just said.

max said...

Also, as Greenwich Leisure does with its leisure centres, the management of this proposed birthing clinic would have to decide for a target amount of surplus needed for upkeep and investment against the need to keep it affordable and pitch its prices accordingly.
Rather different approach to that of an architects' studio.

max said...

Andy, we were writing at the same time, I had not read your comment yet when I wrote mine. We were indeed speaking of the same thing.

max said...

Now that I read it, I think that the demand could be quite high actually, of course one needs a research to say how much with certainty.
And without business plan one cannot say now what you can an cannot do.
But let's not forget that there cold be a number of other ancillary activities, all contributing to the upkeep costs.

The Cat Man said...

True, it could even be possible to do something like what they have for the cinemas. I.e. the sale of tickets do not cover the running costs of showing a film per se, but rather the 'other items purchased' such as food, drink generates the profit and the future investment.

Unusual comparision I know, but it could be that other surplus lines might subsidise the running of the birthing centre.

Sounds all good stuff, have you suggested anything to the council? Maybe contact your local councillor?

max said...

Well, the relationship between me and the high echelons of Lewisham Council is a delicate one, I did mention it to Cllr Chris Best who is Cabinet Member for Community when I met her on Saturday at People's Day.
After I finished my pitch she said that I should be a fund-raiser.
This can be read in more ways than one but of course I like to believe that it's a compliment.
Anyway, my thinking is that if a community is behind a project then the politicians will support it.

This Wednesday there's the Ladywell Village Improvement Group meeting, they are interested in it and I will attend and ask for their support.
Next Monday 21st July there's the Local Assembly for Lewisham Central Ward and I will again look for support there.

Anonymous said...

Come late to this - been away from a computer for a while, bliss in some ways but missed this blog.

Great idea. Fills a need, teenage pregnancies, etc. and I had to go beyond Crystal Palace for my NCT classes. I've also loved the Playtower ever since I moved to Ladywell 25 years ago and have been mildly grieving its slow demise for years.

It's not in a conservation area as far as I know but it is such an iconic building I'm sure the Lewisham Panel of Conservation Areas would voice their support any proposal tha saves it even though this is strictly outside their remit. Get in touch with the THS on and we'll put you in contact with the others.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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