Park life in Cheltenham: an empowered community makes a difference


Summary

Springfield Park is in an area of Cheltenham that ranks high in the tables of deprivation. Far from being the community asset it was designed to be, fears about personal safety and anti-social behaviour meant the park was shunned by local residents. Cheltenham Borough Council turned to the local community for a solution.

Key learnings for other councils

  1. The need for self-reliance. It is much easier to find capital funding for a building than revenue for running it. So it is important that partnerships are formed early on and the net for funding is cast wide.
  2. It takes a long time to get results. If a community resource is going to have an impact it needs to be familiar and owned by local people, which takes time.
  3. Local people must be at the heart of the centres. Resource centres can help build confidence in communities by local people not only using the facilities but also helping run them. Communities may start to flex their muscle and disagree with council policies, but this is a healthy sign of a community rebuilding itself.
  4. There needs to be a strategic vision. Underlying Cheltenham's vision is the belief that deprived communities need focal points to bring people together, build pride in an area and develop confidence.

Who was involved?

Cheltenham Borough Council contributed £2.2 million towards the cost of the £2.9 million community resource centre. The Hesters Way Partnership raised the rest of the money from a range of other public sector sources.

The partnership's approach to the project was to find local people who could inspire others to get involved. Andy Hayes, Manager of the Hesters Way Partnership, says:

"You can't just do community development to people - they need to be involved. In the case of a community resource centre, we needed to find the ‘movers and shakers' in the community so that groups of people would coalesce around them. They help drive people who don't want to be leaders but who will offer their support."

The Springbank Environment Group has worked closely with Cheltenham Borough Council on how the park should be developed. Major landscape work has been undertaken, including bringing in boulders to stop motorbikes being driven over the grass.

The problems and how we tackled them

The main problems the project aimed to address were the residents' perception of the park as unsafe, and the lack of any real sense of community involvement in the area.

"The park was a no-go area for a lot of people as it didn't feel very safe. A lot of anti-social behaviour took place, including drug dealing and kids driving around on mini-motorbikes," says Wayne Sedgwick who works as a Ranger for the council.

The notoriety of the park meant that it was difficult to find people willing to work in the area.

"Even the guys who went to mow the grass used to get assaulted by teenagers so we had to make sure there were always two of them there," says Sedgwick and adds, "We also couldn't get play workers to go there as they felt unsafe."

Two years ago, a community resource centre was built in the park, funded largely by the Cheltenham Borough Council and run by a local partnership, the Hesters Way Partnership. The partnership and a group of other local people set up the Springbank Environment Group to look after and develop the park. These two initiatives are changing the way people use the park and galvanising local people to become more involved in their community.

The new community resource centre is now a hive of activity. It has a range of meeting and conference rooms for local groups plus a doctors' surgery, pharmacy, dentist as well as a youth centre and nursery. It has not only provided a community focus but has also galvanised local people into action.

"People are much more involved in a community now," says Andy Hayes, Manager of the Hesters Way Partnership. "For example, a group of local people recently got together a petition with hundreds of names on it to highlight the fact that the local shopping centre is derelict. This would never have happened in the past but people now believe that change is possible."

While there is still a lot more to be done, many of the problems of the park have begun to disappear since the new centre was built and the park redesigned.

"The incidence of anti-social behaviour has diminished phenomenally. In the past every time new play equipment was installed in the park it would get damaged. Since we built the centre and redesigned the park there has been very little damage at all. Local people see it as theirs," says Hayes.

The work of the Springbank Environment Group is also changing people's perceptions of the park, says Hayes.

"It's not just picking up the litter that's made a difference, but also the fact that people are seeing us regularly in the park. It has helped to start to change perceptions and build pride. In the past people used to keep to their eyes to the ground and avoid looking at you in case there was trouble. Now people smile much more - it is a totally different atmosphere."

Outcomes and impact

The building of the community resource centre has enabled local people to believe change is possible in their area. This belief has led to greater involvement and pride in the community. As more and more people come and go, to and from the community resource centre, the way people use the park has changed. Residents' pride in the newly-redesigned park has led to a reduction in vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

Next steps

Liberal Democrat John Webster has been actively involved in the development of Cheltenham's four community resource centres. He says the concept is not the same as the older style community centre or village hall.

"While our centres have a social function they are also about engaging and reskilling people in all areas of their life. Our approach is based on localism - centres run by people for the community and managed by the community for local people. It reinforces and builds on the existing web of community relationships and gets people working together to tackle difficult issues."

Contact

Andy Hayes
Hesters Way Partnership
email: andyhayes@hwnp.org.uk