In an unfashionable part of North Bristol that some may be only dimly aware of Lawrence Weston has become home to an inspiring experiment in community empowerment.
It’s called Ambition Lawrence Weston and in just a few short years this ‘community-driven regeneration project’ has made huge strides in improving an area that has suffered decades of neglect. “I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was when they decided to close the college back in 2011,” recalls Mark Pepper, the group’s Development Manager. “People were quite angry. So we set up a meeting of residents together to see what could be done.”
At that first meeting Friends of Lawrence Weston College was formed, which, as they widened their brief to look the other problems the area faced, evolved into Ambition Lawrence Weston. Gradually they realised they’d have to take on a more active role than community groups have traditionally taken. So they decided to write a Community Development Plan that mapped out what they wanted for the area – more services, a community health hub, decent housing and a supermarket, something the area has long lacked.
But ALW have done much more than that. Dividing themselves into sub groups, based on areas of interest including housing, children and families, health and social care and energy. They’ve managed to save local green spaces from development, won two new kids’ play areas and secured the future of the community’s jobs club. They’ve registered themselves as a charity and with the backing of Bristol City Council secured £1 million worth of lottery funding to be spent over the next 10 years.
Many community groups end up with adversarial relationships with local politicians and decision makers so how have ALW managed, not just to be taken seriously, but taking the initiative? “I’d say we have a really strong voice,” suggests Pepper. “We are large in number – over 160 fully signed up members, with 60 active residents and a core group of 20, so we are hard to ignore.”
“But I also think it’s because we’re not afraid to meet politicians halfway. It’s easy to get angry and negative when things don’t go your way, but we try and keep good relationships with the council and other organisations. If you can get on with the people you’re ultimately going to be working with then it has a positive effect.”
Ambition Lawrence Weston’s patient approach has certainly reaped rewards. The group has saved a local youth centre that was due to be closed and Pepper confirms that a deal has been done with a supermarket chain (though due to commercial confidentiality he can’t yet reveal which one) – one of the original aims of the campaign – to return to Lawrence Weston.
Beyond improving their neighbourhood, one of ALW’s by-products has been to empower local people. “It’s given a huge boost to many people in the community,” explains Pepper. “In fact one of the few downsides is that quite a few people who were unemployed and perhaps lacking in confidence have now got jobs and can’t take such an active role anymore!”
And most importantly it’s made residents feel different about their area too. “This place didn’t used to have a very good reputation. But I think that’s changing. We’ve got a long way to go but people feel proud to say they live in Lawrence Weston now.”
For more information see: ambitionlw.org