Spaces of hope: a gem of the old world of farming, trapped in an industrial space

I was wondering what to post about this morning, having been finally and rudely evicted from my bed by the Archers omnibus (a UK radio programme about rural life in England, which I loathe for its pantomime script and ham acting), and have decided to begin at the very beginning, as far back as we can trace the history of the parcel of land we are about to regenerate for urban agriculture.  Many years ago, when V and I first saw the site at Barlow Road, in Wednesbury North, and mentally noted its potential, while we set about developing out two other community farms and gardens, I noticed that a sad scrap of internal hedgerow was probably very old and likely to have marked out a long lost field boundary.  I went to the archives at Smethwick Library, partly to find out about industrial development in the area that may have left a legacy of land contamination (Sandwell is redlined as a contaminated area), and partly to find out the patterns of land ownership.

What we found out was that this sad scrap of land was once owned by a Rowntree, the famous former chocolate manufacturers and Quaker family, that did try to bring about better living conditions for people in Birmingham in the darker days of industrialisation.  We found the old pattern of field boundaries, and when you overlay the boundaries of the site (see pic), you can indeed see the field boundaries, and we can verify that the fragment of hedgerow can be dated to at least 1880, and is probably much older than that, perhaps dating back to the enclosures, when people were evicted from their ‘commons’, often being forced to migrate to find work in the emerging industrial centres as factory fodder – a pattern now being repeated in poorer parts of the world, but that’s for another blog on another day.

This land parcel, amazingly, this scrap of relatively unadulterated farmland, survived the most intense explosion of industrialisation of its time, at the birth of the industrial revolution, where mining and metalworking were first transformed from craft industries to fully industrialised, large scale technologies, which gobbled up the land and drew in a major urban population of industrial workers.  All around were pit and opencast mines, blast furnaces, metal fabricators, chain makers, engine builders, and associated industries.  The Black Country’s products fuelled the development of the modern industrial world. As the years progressed, the literally blasted landscape was left in ruins as centres of industrialisation moved on, and capital took flight, and industrial scale landfill and major transport networks took over the area.  It was Margaret Thatcher’s regime, with its visceral hatred of organised labour, that finally did for the place, in the 1970s, since then there has been little hope of recovery for the area and its inhabitants.

I can’t begin to describe the ugliness of this particular swathe of the Black Country, with stilt-raised motorway networks and intersections (not to give the motorists a better view, but because the land is unstable), rail shunting depots, acres of old and decaying, and newer, industrial infrastructure.  As for the site itself, to the north is an immense landfill site – now home to a fairly new ‘build ’em long and low on concrete rafts’ big box stores and Birmingham IKEA, with who-knows-what buried there; to the east are two high schools, most probably on landfill or old industrial sites; and not far beyond this is the 24/7 roar of one of Britain’s busiest, most congested motorways. The stream that once ran to the north boundary (now buried under the stores) was once the most significant source of copper pollution in the area.

In amongst all of this, and housed on a estate that was built in the 1920/30s, which in part surrounds the fragment of farmland that forms the Barlow Road site, are the good people of Wednesbury, struggling as always to survive – a million miles away in economic and social terms from the middle and upper classes of Britain. Having previously worked mainly in the south of the borough, we are now just getting to know Wednesbury’s YamYams (a Black Country term).  We are beginning to explore local social networks and associations, and we are told that these are particularly strong, with a community of folk that will go a long way to help each other.  I can’t help but wonder to what extent these strong local associations developed in response to the poor economic, social, and environmental, living conditions people have endured.  It takes me back to my roots in the back streets of Brixton in south London, where people were poor, died in droves of (now) preventable diseases, but stuck together and helped each other in hard times.

So, how come this little gem of the old world of farming survived, and not only that, remained as a site of food production for the community?  As far as we can  make out, it was gifted by the owner to a local steelworks, to act as an allotment site for the employees, so that they could grow food for their families.  The allotments tradition is still strong, if largely invisible, in Sandwell and across the UK.  Some say it was less about filling stomachs and more about keeping the men out of the pubs and saving souls, and others will argue that it was a way of keeping industrial wages low, but ensuring that your workforce was fit to work; both probably true.  Then, when the steelworks closed, it was passed to the Council as a statutory allotment site and protected green space, where it fell into disuse over many years as the art and practice of allotment keeping declined.

Which is good for us, and good for the now thriving allotment community that have battled the dereliction on their portion on the site, and brought it back into production.  Now it’s our turn to tackle the dereliction and fly tipping on the remaining three or so acres.  It will be a major, and expensive, job, funded by charitable trusts.  It has been a two-year effort to raise the funds to restore this forgotten and unloved historical gem to productivity, and to restore the fragment of hedgerow to something resembling what it may once have been.  This scrap of land has the potential to bring into full view a timeline of the history of the area and its people, something we will be celebrating as we transform this hidden gem of the old world of farming, trapped in a mixed up, mashed up industrial space: a small ‘space of hope’ for the local community.

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Exploring new ways of working

This week I am grounded, both by vehicle problems (I acted as roadie – I have a nice van – at the weekend for a band in which my son and best friend were playing, and was incompetently reversed into something extremely hard by the drunken bass player, and now am seriously out of pocket for repairs); and by attacks of vomiting which I am convinced were brought on by a food product (Blue Dragon pour in chilli and coconut sauce – avoid it!), as even the dog was sick after I gave him the leftovers).

However, last week I mailed some key pieces of work to myself at home, including the text of a publication we (Veronica, Helen and myself) are working on to showcase our work and achievements through the Health and Well Being Service, and specifically our community agriculture programme Growing Opportunities; and all the necessary papers to work up an expression of interest (EoI) submission to the Big Lottery Communities Living Sustainably (CLS) stream.

We write bids like there was no tomorrow – if we didn’t there would be no tomorrow, as we could not sustain the multifunctional service.  Often we draw on existing text from previous bids, becoming rather like a production line using the same components in different configurations.  But every now and again, an opportunity to apply for funding comes along that requires you to step back, think, research and explore new ways of working.  This happened recently with a bid I submitted to the Pfizer UK Foundation, where I worked with the public heath team’s research manager to frame a bid for work with families, children and young people around the tackling obesity theme.  It was successful  (£17.5k), and quickly, which vindicated the research and preparation that went into it.  This EoI requires similar discipline, research, thought, and speaking to people who have different kinds of experience and capacities.

The CLS funding stream is focused on climate change, and bringing positive actions down to a community level, engaging and empowering people to take actions and helping to build sustainable and resilient communities.  The partners that have been drawn together, including Blakemores (Spar), Wednesbury Learning Community Trust, the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, the Sandwell public health team, and ourselves, have all come together around the forthcoming new community agriculture scheme at the Barlow Road site in Wednesbury, close to Junction 9 of the M6.  One of the group, Paul Southon, part of the public health team, suggested a ‘asset based community development‘ (ABCD) approach, which sounded very interesting, but was new to the rest of us.

So I am reading up about ABCD, as well as food and climate change, and climate change as a public health issue, to help me frame the EoI, which allows 600 words to describe your proposed project to the funder, and 150 words to describe each partner and what they bring to the table. That is a real discipline and challenge.  I find myself captured by ABCD (an acronym that is as easy as abc – literally) as both a methodology and strategy, which has real potential to work in the new community agriculture setting, helping to take community agriculture to the next level, and continue to realise the vision as set out in the community agriculture strategy (I will upload the link to the publications page soon).

ABCD is a growing movement that originated in the USA, which has captured the attention of people working in community development, as an alternative to needs based community development.  Broadly, the appeal of ABCD lies in its premise that communities can drive the development process themselves by identifying and mobilising existing (but often unrecognised) ‘assets’, thereby responding and creating local economic (to which we would add environmental regenerations and ‘natural capital’) opportunity.  ABCD draws attention to social assets: the gifts and talents of individuals, and the social relationships that fuel local associations and informal networks.

To me, this seems to be an ideal way to build on the methods and approaches we used some years ago, which were based on a user led framework and the social model of disability.  There was indeed a vibrant process of community engagement and community led planning, and our Health and Well Being Committee remains a committed user led group, drawn from the diverse communities of Sandwell.  More lately though, our attention has been absorbed in developing and delivering a multifunctional programme, driven in part by the requirements of public sector service commissioners.  It is time we moved on, not from delivering award winning community agriculture sites, activities, and services, but towards new approaches that link community development work with hard edged academic research.  ABCD is both a methodology and a strategy, which offers great potential to build on our user led, inclusive, social model, which, on reflection, all of us in the team agree was pretty powerful in developing the community gardens and the framework of their operation, but lacked theoretical clout.

But this isn’t getting the EoI written. Each time I am involved in developing a major bid, I cram myself with information about different, other peoples thinking, hard data, interesting new approaches, etc., and it all swirls around in my head 24 hrs a day, with occasional flashes of insight, while the deadline looms ever closer and an undercurrent of procrastination and anxiety flows through me.  Maybe that’s why I have stomach ache.  But I still blame it on that Blue Dragon chilli and coconut sauce.  And to their credit, Sainsburys are taking the matter seriously and have sent the remains of the product to their lab for testing.  Ugh, even thinking about that sauce makes me feel ill.

And happy Chinese new year to you – year of the dragon (but not dragon sauce, in my case).

Week three – the pace quickens

This week turned quickly into a small whirlwind of activity, so much so that by Wednesday there was a traffic jam in my brain that required a brisk walk in the fresh air around the Independent Living Centre (what there is of it with a busy dual carriageway alongside), which is in Smethwick, one of the six towns that make up the metropolitan borough of Sandwell. In many ways it was a positive and productive week, accompanied by a rising sense of excitement about the new community agriculture initiative we are beginning in another of the six towns, Wednesbury, but also by a rising sense of panic about my workload.

It began with a great meeting with Garden Organic, the UK national organisation for organic gardening and growing, which, like many charities, is undergoing restructuring due to the economic downturn, and is actively seeking out new opportunities and collaborations.  Among other things, we spoke about the Lottery’s Communities Living Sustainably (CLS) funding stream, and the possibility of a partnership (with others), to bring forward an expression of interest (EOI) in making a bid. It was also a chance to catch up with a couple of old friends who work there, who were long time (from 1987!) fellow travellers from my organic farming and growing days.

Following this, a day in the office was spent beginning to deal with the diverse and accumulating tasks in dealing with the requirements of funders, from match funding, budgets and spend profiles, through business cases, procurement, legal agreement and leasing issues, all the while thinking hard about how we were going to organise ourselves in terms of capacity to deliver on our commitment, preparing for the CLS partnership meeting and a Board seminar the following day, and discussing all of this and more with my two development managers.  A mild sense of panic began to set in as the list of tasks seemed to get longer not shorter.

Wednesday was a day with back-to-back meetings.  First up was a meeting of partners identified as being likely to make up a strong partnership group for a CSL application, discussing the forthcoming Barlow Road Community Agriculture Initiative, and how it, and we, could bring forward an asset based community development programme worthy of Lottery funding, that would stand out from the jostling crowd of other applicants.  This has to be submitted by January 31st, and seems to be in line with a new approach by the Lottery to open very short-term windows of opportunity to submit these EOIs.  This worries me, because it is only the larger and better resourced organisations that have capacity to dedicate staff (at the drop of a hat) to work on such things.  Although on the positive side. it is a kind of discipline in fundraising that makes you very focused.

It was an extraordinarily positive meeting, that included the Wednesbury Leaning Community Trust, a co-operative organisation encompassing all the area’s schools and many community organisations; Blakemores, a national food service firm with very local roots and which is still a family business with a strong commitment to positive action in the local community through a corporate social responsibility programme; and the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, which brings a biodiversity and ecological perspective to the application.  Absent but there in spirit were Garden Organic, and Sandwell Primary Care Trust.  The Lottery CLS programme is about supporting communities to find ways to find ways locally for more climate friendly ways of living which may help address climate change (adaptation, and mitigation).  That’s us, then, as the guidance specifically mentions urban agriculture as an example.

This was followed by a meeting on the new site, which is a forlorn mess of old allotment junk and fly tipped rubbish, all comprehensively overgrown for the last 15 or so years.  It does not look too bad to the eye, but it is unsafe to use until cleared. This meeting was with Sandwell Council’s drainage genius, and together with the knowledge of some of the allotment old timers, so we now have a sound grasp of glamorous things related to installing drainage systems that will not let us down five years down the line.  The (ex) chair of the developing allotments association briefed us about its progress and how the members were taking the news that a major scheme was coming to the adjacent land – a mixed response of excitement and anxieties, one that we are familiar with from previous schemes. She spoke of digging up pig bones and a fridge-freezer on her plot, so goodness knows what we will find.

We then led a seminar for Trustees and Board members of Ideal for All, the charitable organisation of which we are a part, to inform them, and address any questions, about the new scheme.  It went very well, we (being Veronica (pictured) and Helen, development managers, and myself) presented the case as made to the funders, and responding to questions and comments. The excitement was shared, such a scheme being an overwhelmingly positive thing for all concerned, but afterwards the traffic jam in my head built up as the stress hormones were in full flow by then.

So, a brisk walk, and gulps of cool if not fresh air, helped to clear the jam, and by the end of the day, after a recap with Veronica and Helen which included discussions about coping with technical and procurement issues, I had cleared my desk, and my brain, of several important tasks, mailed home those that I had not managed to get to, and left others not completed neatly on top of my computer keyboard for next week. Then I drove 86 miles home dodging the spray from the big trucks on the M5, M42, and M40.

I have been thinking about whether to let on in this blog about my long-term illness, but as each week, each day, is variously dominated by my state of health, which fluctuates wildly and unpredictably, it is inevitable that this will be woven into my experiences as recorded on this blog.  I have a disabling illness called fibromyalgia, which is one of the ME/CFS family of conditions affecting the central nervous system. about which medical science is learning, along with its sufferers.  It causes widespread and often untreatable pain (unless you resort to opiates, which I do from time to time, but sometimes even these don’t work unless you take enough to put you in a coma), chronic fatigue, brain ‘fog’ and memory problems.  I am the queen of lists and visual memory aids, being a strongly visual thinker in the first place.  But sometimes I forget to look at the lists and memory aids, indeed I sometimes forget I have made them, which all adds to the fun and stress of managing a significant workflow, topped off by a major new initiative, in 25 hours each week.

The constant challenge of evaluation

It being the last quarter of the financial year, our thoughts are turning towards reporting to our various funders, and the putting into place new contracts and funding agreements with those organisations that generously support us.  There are too many of them to name here, but Sandwell Primary Care Trust deserves a special mention.  The director of public health there, and numerous others, including members of the public health team, and the food team, have been essential to our development. We have for many years enjoyed being part of, and supported by, a configuration of extremely talented people with vision about the regeneration of public health and the urban environment going hand-in-hand – so demonstrating the principles of sustainable development. Sandwell is a very challenging, de-industrialising, poor quality urban environment, with some pretty poor indices of deprivation and ill health, so it needs all the talented people with vision it can get.

Reporting to funders and supporters is itself a challenge, as they are many and various, often requiring very different methods of reporting, from a simple report on a small project with a specific outcome, such as purchasing a new Kederhouse ( a kind of polytunnel), to reporting on a significant contract such as a service level agreement with many different types of activity and potential outcomes.  We can count and record data about many things – who uses our services and all the standard monitoring data such as age, ethnicity, gender, etc, and keep track of all our processes, such as dates, places and types of activity – using databases which can be interrogated in multiple ways.  That is relatively easy due to the skills of our database developer in Ideal for All, the charity of which we are a part.  And we work hard to record evidence of positive outcomes for the people we work with, who are members of Sandwell’s diverse communities through capturing qualitative feedback, and tracking the benefits expressed by individuals and groups. We use some validated tools such as the Short Warwick Edinburgh Mental Health Scale, and wish to extend the use of validated approaches, and methods we can use over time.

Evaluation, and especially meaningful evaluation, which reliably captures and demonstrates data, in ways suited to both an intervention itself, and to funders and commissioners of services, in a constantly shifting configuration of exepctations, is a constant challenge. And we are in the white waters of a major reconfiguration of local governance, what with huge cuts, the seismic changes to the NHS, Primary Care Trusts and the public health function, which will bring big changes to the way services are commissioned and evaluated.  Again, but this time with gigantic bells on.

But for now, it’s time to talk the commisioners of our main contract, in the PCT, to agree the best way to produce an annual report that draws together the monitoring and qualitative data in a way that demonstrates the outcomes of a year of intense activity, including significant success in securing additional funding to add value to the commissioned services. It’s a time of huge upheaval in the voluntary sector, but thanks to the brilliant work of a dedicated team, we have had one of our best years, if not the best, in 11 years of being Growing Opportunities.

One more thing to add to the growing ‘To Do’ list when I return to work tomorrow, that now includes a major new project in a new part of the borough with an already growing list of funders, and meetings with other public, private and third sector organisations to try to unlock more funding to develop it.  Oh, and I’m part time, as are the two development managers!

The first week in – so far, so good

My return to the workplace after the seasonal break, back to the office and to team mates, and to the detailed tasks to begin to piece together what is, for us, a major undertaking, felt pretty good.  First up was rethinking the list of tasks, meetings, staff head-to-heads, legal agreements, leasing arrangements….it’s long list and for the next two years it will never get any shorter.

Achievements of the first days included a convivial meeting with members of Sandwell Council’s legal and other teams for leases and other legal ins and outs for all three of our project sites, a good team get together, and a packed meeting of our user-led Health and Well Being Service Committee.

We have two well established community farms and gardens, both of which were built from scratch on variously derelict land: Malthouse Garden, on a parcel of land formerly occupied by a 20 storey tower block, and Salop Drive Market Garden, on a derelict allotment site.  Now, we are about to start the lengthy process of developing a third community agriculture resource on a similarly derelict former allotment site, adjacent to the part now occupied by a thriving allotments community.  The leases, granted by the Council, and originally for 25 and 20 years respectively, are now 14 and 9 years, which makes fundraising for significant capital investment impossible.  Add to that picture the securing of sufficient funding to invest in a third major scheme, and the opportunity arose to deal with long leases on all three sites of 25 years, subject to Secretary of State approval, which we have already obtained for the new site.

The team get together was an opportunity to reconnect after the seasonal break, and to talk about the new project and its implications for key team members.  Everyone (11 of us, variously full and part time, or sessional) is quietly excited about the new scheme despite already working small daily miracles in delivering a complex service to many of the most vulnerable people in society, living in areas of significant deprivation in the post industrial scene of the six Black Country towns that form the borough of Sandwell.  In future blogs I will undoubtedly speak more of the conditions of the Black Country urban folk, and what they have to endure, the chief ingredients in the mix being in a low (or no) wage economy, poor health, and a poor quality urban environment.

Our Committee, which has been in existence for a long decade, is at the heart of our user-led, social model.  People from all walks of life, many with multiple and complex disabilities, health, economic and social problems dedicate their time to guiding and shaping the services and activities we deliver.  The buzz of enthusiasm apparent among staff was reflected among the members of the committee.

I hope as time goes by people reading this blog will form a picture of what our community agriculture initiative is, does, and is all about.  Rather than launch into long and boring descriptions of this and that, the story will be interwoven into these blogs over time. If you want to find out more, our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Growing-Opportunities-Ideal-For-All/ is pretty lively, and we have a website (much in need of a makeover) at http://www.sandwellfoodnetwork.org

So I reach the end of the first week in an upbeat state of mind, pleased by the first small achievements and the positivity of people.  I’m tempted to say it won’t last, but that isn’t strictly true.  The upbeat, positive side will come in fits and starts, and will be mirrored by times of absolute desperation and seething frustration.  I know.  I’m close to old trout status and I’ve been around several blocks, and have been round this one before.  It requires a mixture of vision, clarity, passion, flexibility, adaptability, staying power and true, true grit, and sometimes it all gets just too much. So I am quietly savouring this small moment, including writing this blog, which will form a narrative that I hope is worth sharing.

Ready, steady, grow!

This is my story of the development of a new community agriculture resource close to Junction 9 of the M6, in Wednesbury, one of the six towns of Sandwell.  It’s a personal blog – a record – of the insights, questions, frustrations and triumphs of putting together a successful urban agriculture programme,  What is posted here does not necessarily represent the views if my employers or other members of our 11 strong team.  Only one has been on this journey with me before – the others don’t know what they are in for but they are willing and able

I am a lifelong farmer and grower, starting as a kid in my Mum’s garden ( once we had one), progressing to a first ramshackle site in Devon, to a 30 acre organic farm and market garden, then into urban agriculture.  Most of my work has been in Sandwell, West Midlands, UK, although I’ve also travelled a lot and seen many other wonderful examples of people just getting on with it, and finding ways to grow food, flowers and lovely things in all sorts of spaces.

Officially, the new initiative starts January 9th, the day of my return to work in 2012, but the story starts many years before, spotting the site and then working to bring a project forward and to get funding for it.  We finally got enough money (about £230,000) at the very end of 2011, for two years of painstaking regeneration of the 1.2 hectares of land, and the gradual ‘build of the infrastructure, together with a staged process of engagement with local people and organisations.

This is my way of keeping a record and sharing the story.  There will be tears, colourful language, desperation, mud, bullozers and holes in the ground, regulations, regulations, regulations; and delights and happy smiles as a once eyesore derelict piece of land, is transformed into a health promoting community resource.

ladybirdathome