Tucked away in a Fishponds side street the long low profile of the Vassal Centre doesn’t immediately catch the eye. Yet last year some 30,000 visitors made use of the building for conferences, meetings and training courses, not to mention the 23 voluntary sector organisations that rent out its rooms.
“I don’t think many local people really know what happens in here,” centre manager Mary Welbourne observes, “But we have a reputation that goes nationwide and beyond.”
That reputation is based on the Vassall Centre’s long-established commitment to removing as many barriers that might confront a disabled person as possible, resulting in it being one of the most accessible public buildings in the country.
This mission was the vision of retired academic Dr Sue McMullen, herself a wheelchair user as a result of childhood polio, who saw the potential in the abandoned single story building. With David Hiatt Baker she established the Disabled Living Centre there in the mid-90s and the success of the project drew in many voluntary organisations both working for and employing disabled people.
Sue’s commitment to removing barriers ensured that the Vassall Centre (as it became) was a model environment that showed how adaptations and imagination could help people with impairments work alongside those without disabilities on an equal basis. Innovations include a training kitchen where the hob and sink can be lowered for wheelchair users and a talking microwave oven to help visually impaired people use it.
Sadly Sue died of cancer in 2010 and three years later the Vassall Centre Trust decided to sell the building, potentially leaving some twenty charitable organisations without a home and abandoning this remarkable project to the mercies of the marketplace. It could have been the end of the road but, paradoxically, turned into a new beginning thanks to property investor Nick Roads who happened upon the Centre when it came onto the market.
“I went along to look at the place and thought ‘Why does this need to shut?’. To me, it seemed viable that it could work as a business so I made an offer. It piqued my interest because it was both a property and a community and so many people come through it. I had no previous experience in the 3rd sector but I felt I could bring my business expertise in property management to help develop it.”
Indeed, since Nick’s company VC Conferences took over the building business has boomed, leading to an impressive refurbishment programme and fresh projects continuing the theme of disability support and access. Among the new arrivals is Sensory Heaven, a project offering a range of experiences from massage to music and pet therapy. Organiser Gayle Hood has found the centre‘s ethos “just brilliant! Things can really grow here.”
That sentiment is evidenced by PROPS, a life skills project for school leavers with learning difficulties offering activities that include growing herbs and vegetables in a poly tunnel behind the main building. Importantly, the building is cleaned by Clean Sweep, a company set up by Mencap employing adults with a range of learning difficulties, while the in-house café and catering is provided by Brandon Trust offering training and employment to people with learning difficulties and autism.
For Nick Roads this potential for social enterprise was unexpected: “It surprised me, being completely different to my experience of ‘charity’ work. We really want to encourage this aspiration for growing businesses. It’s a positive approach that reflects the people here, the core team that I inherited with the building. They make it work – I was just lucky to be in the right place!”
The Vassall Centre is a remarkable example of private enterprise enabling the voluntary sector to do what it does best while generating a sustainable business. It justifies Nick Roads’ observation that, three years down the road: “it appears to be a relatively straightforward win-win for all concerned.”
Read more about the Vassall Centre