Project spotlight: Kitty's Launderette

Autumn 2023 #43
written by
Grace Crabtree
illustration by
Anamaria Sabino
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Launderettes are not usually the most beloved of locations: unstaffed, faulty dryers, sticky floors, expensive cycles eating up large stacks of pound coins. But in the Anfield area of North Liverpool, there is one that is doing things differently. Kitty’s Launderette is a community launderette and social hub which offers affordable (or free) laundry services in a warm and welcoming space, alongside a programme of arts and social activities. It is named after Kitty Wilkinson, an Irish migrant to Liverpool who in 1832 enabled her community to use her hot water to wash clothes and bedding – as the only person on the street with access to a boiler – making a significant impact to the health and wellbeing of her community, and which led on to the opening of the first public laundry facilities in the UK in 1843.

We spoke to Grace Harrison, co-founder and development lead at Kitty’s Launderette, to find out more about the organisation and to discuss what it would take to replicate the model in other communities.

Embedding community impact

Kitty’s Launderette occupies a hybrid space between a multi-stakeholder co-operative and a worker co-operative, which they describe as a worker community co-operative. The co-operative’s membership is made up of employees, service users and contractors, and the wider community. There is a non-executive board, which is a voluntary board with three worker representatives and other members from the local area. This model was chosen for the democratic governance it enables for its worker-members, as well as fostering a real sense of collaboration with other members and users, making space for their input and drawing from their expertise. Crucially, the model also ensures the organisation’s accountability to the community.

Kitty’s seeks to make an impact in the local community in three key areas. The first area is through giving members of the community access to quality, affordable or free laundry facilities, thereby tackling hygiene poverty and fuel poverty. In terms of the complex issues of ‘measuring’ this impact, there are certain simple gauges. For example, they distribute free vouchers for using the launderette through local children’s centres, some local primary schools, food banks, and homeless shelters. When the vouchers are brought back in, Kitty’s can record how the vouchers are being used, in order to give an indication of what is or isn’t working, and to determine where partnerships could be built or expanded. Another calculation can be made through the DIY laundry service, launderette facilities offered to everyone else in the community at essentially cost price. As Kitty’s is cheaper than local alternatives, the money ‘saved’ within a community can be considered a ‘profit share’ back into the community.

The second impact area is the social side of the laundry, both in the space itself and through Kitty’s programme of free events and activities. Grace describes this area as “community building”, combating social isolation by providing a space where people can build friendships and connections, as well as learning new skills in workshops.

The third area is around the quality of local job creation. Kitty’s has eight employees who run both the physical and administrative activities of the launderette, in a flat structure. 50% of the team of employees were previously long-term unemployed or had never had a job before, and the team thought carefully about how to make theirs a workplace that would not exclude based on personal circumstances. For instance, a single parent might struggle to find employment that aligns with school dropoff and pickup times. At Kitty’s Launderette, workers set their fixed contracts around their personal circumstances, and most of the team live within walking distance to the launderette. Kitty’s is also a Real Living Wage Accredited organisation, and pays everyone the same per hour, irrespective of age and experience. The team has a young demographic, and there are opportunities for members to pursue the areas of the business that they are most interested in and develop new skills and capabilities.

A launderette seemed like a space that would dissolve some of these barriers to entry, offering a clear reason to cross the threshold, as we all need to wash our clothes one way or another.

More than a launderette

Before founding Kitty’s Launderette, Grace ran DIY arts and politics events in spaces such as bars, community centres, and arts venues. This gave her awareness of the unequal access to certain spaces and the challenges of inclusion: a pub, for instance, while being a site of social life, poses problems for some members of the community – including those recovering from addiction, or those for whom alcohol is against their religious beliefs. Other spaces might carry cultural or social implications that could feel unwelcoming to some members of the community. A launderette seemed like a space that would dissolve some of these barriers to entry, offering a clear reason to cross the threshold as we all need to wash our clothes one way or another. This question of access guided the initial conversations.

The other driving factor was providing a place that in the first instance is meeting basic needs, which might then in turn allow for creative and social activities to take place, rather than prioritising one need over the other. Users of the launderette can drink free tea or coffee while waiting for their wash or dry, use the free Wifi, and attend free events such as film nights, local history, craft clubs and live music from local performers. Local groups can also suggest events or workshops to be held in the space. Recent events have included Kitty’s summer street party to celebrate their fourth year in the community, and a drop-in session about sustainable home energy with local organisation Homebaked Community Land Trust, one of the many which inspired and supported Kitty’s from its early days.

Illustration by Anamaria Sabino

Identifying the need

An affordable laundry service in the area could benefit many individuals and businesses, but during the early research stage, Grace set out to identify who in the community might be most in need of a self-service launderette, such as people living in social housing where there is often no access to working white goods (fridges, cookers, and washing machines). She also began unearthing hidden statistics around hygiene poverty and fuel poverty, as well as the health implications related to poorly ventilated houses, such as the respiratory impact of drying clothes indoors in such properties.

Transforming a space

It was important to make the space welcoming, and beautiful as well. “It was always part of our core principle that this needs to be a place that everybody wants to be,” she explains. “Sometimes there’s a perception that community things can be a bit cobbled together, as if you have to take what you can get. Making Kitty’s Launderette a beautiful space is a demonstration of care for everybody who needs to use it for free, or for people to just sit in there to be warm.” Challenging the preconception of community spaces as basic and utilitarian was also an important part of reducing some of the stigma around hygiene poverty.

The crucial first step towards Kitty’s Launderette’s realisation was a programme in Liverpool which reinvested money raised from match-day car parks in North Liverpool into early-stage community projects in the city. The format benefitted groups who might not usually have access to traditional funding streams, whether through lack of time, resources, or experience, as it asked only for a paragraph of an idea in order to join the programme. Through this, Grace began to build a business plan and flesh out the idea of a community launderette serving both a practical and social purpose.

At the end of the programme, they pitched for some additional funding, and were successful in being awarded a grant of £20,000. With this clear vote of confidence in the idea, the grant unlocked funding from other sources that might not have been possible otherwise. While further developing the idea, they joined other programmes such as the School for Social Entrepreneurs’ start-up programme and Power to Change’s Bright Ideas Support Fund. During this development period, the local community began to get more involved, first through engagement and consultation, and then through a Kickstarter campaign in 2018. “This was really when it moved from being something we were just talking about in our local community, one-on-one, to a broader Liverpool City region conversation,” Grace reflected. “That was quite scary because we still didn’t have a physical space at the time. But importantly it brought even more people on board, and it really built the idea of the thing, bringing it to life.”

Following the campaign, Power to Change significantly invested in Kitty’s Launderette through their community business fund, enabling them to purchase high-quality equipment rather than leasing it, which meant that the business would be much more robust and sustainable. By this point, Kitty’s Launderette had formed as a multi-stakeholder co-operative, electing a voluntary community board and increasing the size of the employee team.

How is Kitty’s Launderette financed today?

During the initial three years of its development, Kitty’s Launderette largely relied on grant funding, until opening their doors in May 2019 when they began trading. The first few years were impacted by the COVID pandemic, but the business has continued to grow steadily and they now operate on a 75% trading model, with 50% of their income coming from ‘B to C’ (business to customer), 20% ‘B to B’ (business to business – which includes football clubs and hotels), and 5% from project grants, for the creative and outreach projects, such as a heritage project supported by the UK Lottery Fund – ‘Hanging Out: Histories of Liverpool’s Laundry Life’.

The other 25% of Kitty’s Launderette’s income comes from revenue support grants. Grace reflects that although they were initially working towards being an “autonomous and self-sustaining organisation” with a 100% traded model, they now recognise that some of the social impact they deliver might continue to be enabled, at least in part, through other funding streams.

The case for replication

The strength of Kitty’s Launderette lies in its community-led approach. Replicating the model in other towns and cities hinges on the space being owned and run by people from that community. In order to make that happen, it is important to give those people the best chance of making that a success, which might be through training or capacity building. One important area that local councils could help with is the challenge of accessing appropriate space. A launderette doesn’t lend itself well to meanwhile use or private rented spaces because of the equipment and infrastructure required, so long leases are important.

Another important aspect to successfully starting a community launderette is access to funding in order to lease or ideally purchase the necessary equipment. Kitty’s Launderette had support from the Power to Change community business fund, which no longer exists in that form, but similar funds go a long way to helping these kinds of projects get off the ground. As they continue to expand their reach, Kitty’s Launderette are helping to demonstrate how that initial investment and support is returned significantly over time. If people can access these few ingredients – capacity building, space, and some initial investment – it stands as a viable model with potentially far-reaching benefits.

Where next?

Stir to Action is seeking to develop a programme of work that will facilitate the scaling and replication of community businesses such as Kitty’s Launderette. This might include: building the infrastructure that can enable scaling and replication; developing models of social franchising tailored to the co-op and community sector; working with existing place-based organisations and/or aspiring individuals to develop pilots; working with local authorities to identify local opportunities and gaps; conducting further research into barriers and opportunities. We are actively seeking funding to develop this programme of work.

If you’re interested to work with us – as a funder, a commissioning authority, a potential partner organisation, an existing community business or an aspiring individual seeking to develop a community business – please email jonny@stirtoaction.com

kittyslaunderette.org.uk

@kittyslaundry

Autumn 2023 #43
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