‘Becoming the dog, not the wagging tail’: Transforming a Bristol estate

May 24, 2021  

Mark Pepper was born and bred in Lawrence Weston, an historically neglected estate on the outskirts of Bristol. After one of the area’s last public spaces was closed, Mark and residents decided they needed to take control of the future of their area. And they did just this, with remarkable results.

New Local CEO Adam Lent interviewed Mark Pepper in Bristol. Listen to Mark’s interview as part of our Community Paradigm podcast. (5.51 – 15.20)

TRANSCRIPT

MARK: For quite some time the residents have historically been a little bit disempowered,  disengaged. They’d given up on the political process; they didn’t feel they were represented by anyone.

Because of that lack of political support, or lack of interest coming in from different stakeholders, they didn’t feel their vote was wanted and so they didn’t come out to vote – so that political attention was placed elsewhere.

It’s an area seen from the outside as an area you would stay for a little while until the housing department could re-house you somewhere you decide to live in, not just one you’re getting chucked in.

It’s a combination of things that reinvigorated or remotivated the residents to come together to try and change things for the better.

One: the fact that most people now realise that with the housing crisis if you’ve got a two-bedroom flat chances are you’re going to be there for quite some time, so perhaps it’s in your interests to invest some time and efforts to where you’re living now. By that I mean getting involved in the community and setting down roots a bit firmer than they did before, because the area was quite transient.

We wanted to see a shift in power from the decision-makers, to put us back in the driving seat: to become the dog [instead of] the wagging tail.

On top of that, austerity measures came in, cuts came in and [people] felt a little bit disempowered; helpless about what was going on. And then they made the decision to shut the local college, which used to be the local school, and that had a lot of emotional ties with many of the residents. I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. People said ‘things have got to change’ and I think the attitude was ‘nobody is doing it for us, so we need to do it ourselves – we need to take back that power’.

Roundabout 2011 we had some support from the local authority, Public Health, and a little bit of money and some advice and support from community development consultants. It gave us that confidence and awareness that no – things shouldn’t be like they are, and we want to see a shift in power from the decision-makers, to put us back in the driving seat: to become the dog [instead of] the wagging tail.

So we came together. We had lots of community meetings. It was felt the best thing we could do was get a better understanding of how the rest of the residents felt. So we trained up the residents, sent them out door knocking with a consultation and a survey.

We collated all of their views and invited them back to the community centre and said: ‘Right these are your views; this as what you’re telling us needs changing. Tell us now how we go about making these changes. How do we provide those things that you want us to provide giving austerity measures?’

You went into our local supermarket and asked for an onion they think you’re asking for an exotic vegetable. You’d have to go to the neighbouring village to get one!

The biggest issue – which was felt by 82% of respondents – was that they wanted to see a supermarket. The lack of affordable and healthy food was a real issue to them. The provision that we had at that time was quite exploitative.

[The supermarket] knew they had a monopoly.  [Residents] were extremely fed up with that, not just because of the lack of affordable and healthy food – you went into our local supermarket and asked for an onion they think you’re asking for an exotic vegetable. You’d have to go to the neighbouring village to get one! But it wasn’t just about that, it was about the way the supermarket was treating our residents – they wanted changing.

In addition to that the second-highest priority was housing – we’ve got a lot of hidden homelessness.

We put all of that information into a community development plan. I think that gave us something we haven’t had for many, many years if not at all ever – and that was confidence to other stakeholders and investors that were now in a position to address some of those problems ourselves, should we receive the resources.

That makes a massive difference not just because the outcomes you can get but also that sense of ownership, responsibility, confidence, feeling of self-worth that you can seriously make some changes.

So along came the National Lottery with their Big Local program and they gave us £1 million to be spent on what the residents thought was needed. That really gave us the confidence that we could really make some changes now.

Mark Pepper with New Local CEO Adam Lent

Whereas before we were seeing regeneration projects coming to the area, where there was some devolved moneys and devolved powers coming down to the local areas, but that didn’t go far enough because decisions on how to spend the money always sat with politicians and councillors.

They would listen to the residents but they didn’t actually put the power and spend directly into the hands of the residents. That makes a massive difference not just because the outcomes you can get but also that sense of ownership, responsibility, confidence, feeling of self-worth that you can seriously make some changes.

More important than that it didn’t waste money. In the past you’d get an agenda coming in: for example there’s £60,000 to spend on obesity. Crack on and do that. It may be in our area (I’m sure we have but this is just a poor example) that we haven’t got issues with obesity – at least that’s not where the priority sits – but we’d be forced to spend that money on obesity when we know perhaps it could be better spent elsewhere. Because we know at a local level what’s best for our local area.

in the past when we haven’t had influence over how money has been spent, a lot of money has been wasted, because we didn’t want to give it back, but we knew if we didn’t spend it we’d lose it.

ADAM: You’re starting with a blank sheet basically aren’t you and saying to the community, What is it that you want to do? And that puts them immediately in the driving seat.

MARK: Yes – in the past when we haven’t had influence over how money has been spent, a lot of money has been wasted, because we didn’t want to give it back, but we knew if we didn’t spend it we’d lose it. So nobody was getting best value. Now we know where the issues are and we’re very frugal with the money we’ve got, we’ve done quite well to be honest.

We can now address things preventatively and an holistic way. It’s no good trying to address the housing problem if you don’t alongside that address the unemployment problem or the low-wage problem, because you can build those houses, but if people can’t afford to live in them? So that leads to training – how we going to upskill our residents if we don’t have the training provision? And then housing also leads to transport. It’s us being able to look at the whole picture in Lawrence Weston in a holistic view and not just piecemeal.

There are a lot of changes; there’s a lot of attitudinal changes which are hard to measure. There’s a lot of built infrastructure changes, a lot of service provision changes.

I think the biggest change is that confidence in people who know that the area is changing for the better; changes in people willing to give up their time to get involved and to take action.

We’ve got a number of groups we oversee like a litter-picking group, gardening group, Men in Sheds groups, walking groups; lots of small little groups delivering services to benefit themselves. We’ve supported residents to start up social businesses, we’ve created small communities within a community.

It’s us being able to look at the whole picture in Lawrence Weston in a holistic view and not just piecemeal.

ADAM: Can you tell us a bit about the situation for the site of the college?

MARK: The administration were planning to demolish the college site and put houses in it. Our community development plan as written by the residents suggested that we didn’t need only houses on that site, we needed a new supermarket.

[The council] suggested there wasn’t demand so we went out and got our own opinion from a retail expert. Five supermarkets came forward. We pushed our way into the design brief for that site to ensure we were on the interview panel. And I’m glad to say a leading supermarket has now moved into the area which fits the demographic quite nicely.

I think the biggest change is that confidence in people who know that the area is changing for the better

We’ve also facilitated a new bus service; a new community health hub costing £4.2 million pounds; we’ve facilitated and supported a solar farm to come to the area which will see 50% of the profits come back to the local community. We’ve put in a pre-planning application for a wind turbine, community owned by us – that’s a £5 million project that would oversee our economic sustainability for a long time. We’ve got a planning application for 36 less-unaffordable houses on a site nearby.

We couldn’t have done any of that without the support of the local authority and some of the asset transfers that they propose to make to us, like the land for the housing, land for the wind turbine, the funding from the Community Infrastructure Levy which we get a premium for because we have a neighbourhood development plan.

So a lot of support from the local authority, a lot from private sector, but mostly being driven by local residents who are taking matters into their own hands.

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