Blackburn with Darwen - Four Seasons garden project


Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and Twin Valley Homes have turned a wilting nursery business into a community work scheme. The Four Seasons garden project aims to get people from deprived areas into work, partly as a way to improve their health. Part of Lifestyles for Work, the project is also looking at ways to increase the environmental sustainability of both the site and its partner organisations.

Key learnings for other councils

Having the vision and flexibility to develop ideas and projects in ways that are not always immediately obvious is essential.

The project has needed to build good relationships with partner organisations to persuade them of the benefits of referring to the Lifestyles for Work programme.

Knowing your potential market is crucial for starting a self-supporting community business. Blackburn and its partners undertook a thorough stakeholder analysis before setting up Lifestyles for Work. It found that the nursery would be a market niche that would be likely to get support from the community. It also knew that the business it was taking on had been well-liked by local people and it has been vital to maintain their support.


Blackburn's community development work with people aged over 50 revealed that many of them wanted to take on an allotment. Although spaces were available at the time (2003), older people were put off by their overgrown state and the amount of work it would take to make them viable again for growing produce.

This led to another community programme that focused on supporting allotment regeneration and developing the idea of community allotments. Over time other groups became interested and got involved, including:

  • people with learning disabilities
  • people with mental health problems
  • black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities
  • people on probation
  • schoolchildren.

As the project - called Grow Active - evolved the council began offering voluntary work experience to people on the allotments. However, this environment quickly became unsuitable as Andrea Madden, Manager of the Health and Fitness Team, explains:

"We were trying to give people workplace opportunities, but allotments are a leisure and social environment, rather than a working environment… basically, you can't produce to sell."

By now the popularity of the work experiences related to the allotments was clear, but the council needed to find an environment that would be suitable. The housing association Twin Valley Homes put forward the solution. It would buy a rundown garden centre and the council could turn it into a community enterprise.

The problems and how they were tackled

The project takes referrals from a number of partners, including Jobcentre Plus, Connexions, youth offending teams, courts and charities. This includes, for example, Groundwork as part of the council's Lifestyles for Work programme.

The project holds consultation interviews to establish an applicant's medical history and current health status. They then discuss and agree expectations from both sides before they join the 12-week intensive work programme based at the nursery.

This includes learning relevant skills for the horticultural and landscape sectors -
for example, gardening, dry stonewalling. The programme also provides sessions on drug awareness, healthy eating, diabetes and other health promoting topics. This is to help participants learn more about the health effects of their lifestyles.

Stewart McGiffin, from Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, is the project's Manager. He says that the most important thing the programme is doing is to:

"…teach people to get back into the rhythm of working - everybody onsite is either long-term sick, unemployed, or has special needs or disablements. So there's no restrictions as long as they are over 16."

Participants who successfully complete the 12-week programme get certificates for the courses they have been on and a letter of recommendation.

Some of the people who have been on the programme stay at the nursery as worker volunteers. They continue to learn and develop by taking on some of the onsite business and managerial responsibilities.

Overcoming health and safety concerns was one of the biggest challenges for getting the programme started. How would it be possible to assess the risks to vulnerable people of so many different groups working on the one site? What about the risks of injury from involving people in heavy work such as digging?

The team had good support from external partners, such as the local primary care trust (PCT) and what Madden calls:

"…a grounded health and safety team internally… there were obviously constraints and strict controls put into place but they wanted us to do it."

The project has needed to build good relationships with partner organisations to persuade them of the benefits of referring to the Lifestyles for Work programme.

Outcomes and impact

Madden reports that "people from groups who ‘society' has decided can't be bothered getting up in the morning… have walked four miles in winter to get to the site by 8.00 am."

Redevelopment work began in July 2009. In the lead up to Christmas 2009, the project sold Christmas trees and since then has been growing its own plants for sale.

The project uses no pesticides onsite and there are plans to make the premises more environmentally sustainable. They aim to install solar panels and a ground source heat pump to heat the garden centre building and poly tunnels.

The project has a classroom onsite which is also used by the council's Environment team for community education programmes. Subjects include ecological topics such as waste and recycling.

Madden is very clear about what the benefits of this project are:

"If you change somebody's employment status, their economic status, their social status… you're going to change their health status. And that's what's happening."

In the 12 months to July 2010 the nursery had 155 referrals. Many of these have gone on get work after completing the Lifestyles for Work programme. For example, some have started their own businesses, while others have got work with a kitchen-making business.

Twin Valley Homes has taken on trainees from the project as part of their maintenance teams. Others have secured jobs with commercial gardening centres and nurseries in the district.

The overwhelming feedback seems to be that the match between the project and the people coming onto the Lifestyles for Work programme is a positive one. For example, non-attendees at school have benefited from the chance to participate in an outdoor-based work programme.

The project is helping Twin Valley Homes to reduce its transport carbon footprint. Previously the housing association bought its plants for communal garden beds from outside the borough. It now buys them direct from the centre which grows them onsite.

Costs and resources

Twin Valley Homes bought the nursery for £270,000. Should the community enterprise fail the site is suitable for redevelopment as housing. Currently the project pays Twin Valley a peppercorn rent.

The council is expecting a cut in the Area-based grant budget for the project (sliced off its £100,000 Working Neighbourhood grant for 2010/11). In the short term, it is hopeful that Four Seasons will generate sufficient income to withstand this. One of the longer-term aims is to make it financially sustainable, perhaps through a community enterprise model.

The team's experiences so far have shown that this kind of project needs more than a typical 12 to 18-month investment. Many of the people who are being referred have had many years of what Madden calls "being in a downward spiral". This can't be turned around quickly: "you've got to allow people to have failures but to keep that upward trend".

Next steps

Feedback from participants suggests that one important ingredient in replicating the success of this programme is the honesty and openness that McGiffin demands. People who have been referred from probation or drugs rehabilitation have actively welcomed the opportunities that he gives them to talk openly about their past experiences.

Crucially, people are supported to have a stake in the garden centre. Some workplace volunteers go on to have managerial responsibilities, while another represents the centre on the Darwen Business and Shop Owners' Association. Others have ideas that the centre is happy to embrace.

Glen Finch, Head of Regeneration at Twin Valley Homes, sums up this atmosphere by saying:

"Volunteers can actually put their own stamp on it, they can be creative… yes they're doing something they enjoy but they are also being involved in making it a success and I think that's the most important thing."

Contacts and links

Stewart McGiffin
Healthy Living and Sport Project Manager
Four Seasons Garden Project
Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council
Telephone: 01254 706890

Andrea Madden
Health and Fitness Team Manager
Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council

Twin Valley Homes

13 February 2015

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