Our journalist-at-large Ryan Herman speaks to Alison Jones, the Development Manager in Little Hulton Big Local, Greater Manchester, about the plans to transform a local park into a thriving hub of community activity.
Two of the most common issues that Big Local areas have tried to address are a) lack of community meeting spaces b) nothing for young people to do.
But even if you have the money to tackle those problems, you still need land, planning permission, and a local council that is willing to support your idea.
Then, if you’re really lucky and everything falls into place, the project might be completed within three or four years. All the while you’re trying to keep the community on board when all too often they have seen blueprints for buildings and projects that never got past the ‘artists impression’ stage.
If that wasn’t tricky enough, Big Local areas are now trying to juggle their long-term objectives with the immediate needs caused by COVID-19. One area that is managing to do both is Little Hulton, which falls within Salford, on the north-west edge of Greater Manchester.
Salford is a tale of two cities. There is the Salford that is home to the BBC, where the skyline is dominated by cranes and the construction of shiny new apartments. Then there is the Salford that is home to Little Hulton, where most of the houses were built post-war and which has the highest number of young people who are classified as NEETs (Not In Education, Employment or Training) in the country. According to a 2018 report by Salford Star, around 11% of 16 and 17-year-olds are NEETs, which is four times the national average.
Even though Little Hulton Big Local is now having to deal with the latest local lockdown, they continue to stay focused on their legacy projects at Peel Park.
Steve Skinner is the author of a new book titled ‘Building Strong Communities’. He is also the Big Local rep for Little Hulton and says;
The Peel Park project in Little Hulton is a great example of a Big Local partnership carefully going through the stages to set up a new centre.”
“In this case, from a research project on community, long term planning sessions, developing a business plan, fund-raising and board members’ involvement in the design.”
It is also a triumph of persistence.
Little Hulton Big Local Development Manager Alison Jones explains: “There are two main aspects to Peel Park. First is the outdoor space. Every time we did a consultation with young people they said they wanted an area for biking or skateboarding. We struggled for 18 months to move that forwards.
“We were told it would be a controversial proposal but when it was put on the Planning Portal there were 22 comments and only one was an objection.
“We continued to be proactive and linked up with a fundraiser who was working a charity called Access Sport. They were looking for somewhere to place a BMX track. We said ‘we know where you could put one!’
“So we met with them to talk about our vision for Peel Park and I thought to myself ‘I’ve been here before. You do the sell, and then nothing happens’. But that certainly wasn’t the case with Access Sport.
I think what really got them on board was the level of community support and the depth of research carried out that sent out a clear message about what young people want.”
Little Hulton Big Local has invested £50,000 of its own money as part of a wider funding programme for the track that could ultimately generate around four times that amount.
Alison adds, “We were told planning would be the main hurdle but, in principle, the council is not saying no. Once it gets past the planning panel, then it will go out to tender and we could have a BMX track at Peel Park in around six months.”
The second aspect involves plans to rebuild the park’s pavilion, which is currently an nondescript brick building near the park entrance, and turn into it a bright and modern community hub and cafe.
Little Hulton Big Local has ringfenced £150,000 for that development. There have been other four-figure donations, although it will still require a six-figure investment for the hub to become a reality.
Even so, the project has gone into pre-planning, and a key part of the proposal is that it could create jobs at a point when households across this community are dealing with the financial fallout of COVID-19.
“We’ve lost time around project development because it was vital to provide food for the community during lockdown,” says Alison.
The government’s announcement that Greater Manchester would go back into lockdown came as a bolt from the blue. But Little Hulton has been able to respond swiftly by working closely with its partners. They include Women With Wings which helps women within the community to start a new business or get training or go back to studying via networking, weekly meetings and fundraising events.
“We’ve had to put everything on hold during COVID-19,” says its founder and CEO Jasmine Bakhre. “We started a service to make and deliver food parcels and five women will be continuing that service going forward. Personally, it was good for me to see what was actually happening within our community.”
People who were struggling before this crisis are feeling it 100 times more. And we have people who are stuck between suddenly losing their job and waiting to get on Universal Credit.”
Going forward, groups like Women With Wings could play an important role in providing advice and support for those who have lost jobs as a consequence of COVID-19.
Another by-product of the crisis is that more people aware of what Big Local is, what it does and what it stands for.
Community Organiser Susan Owen explains, “We’ve had more feedback over the last two months than we’ve ever had. The fact we’ve all worked together has been a real strength of this community and something we should all rightly be proud of. Nobody was thinking ‘this is my project’. What matters is who gets fed, not who feeds them.
She adds, “In the long term, the absolute dream would be to build the Peel Park Pavillion in all its glory and the bike track.” In advance of that, a bike maintenance course is being run this summer.
Little Hulton Big Local has also running a programme in conjunction with Sale Sharks rugby club for teenagers that have fallen out of the education system, to ultimately help them find employment. And Peel Park could provide more opportunities for those young people living in a community that often feels like it has been standing still while other parts of the city have been thriving.
Alison concludes, “You look around and you can see it’s an area that has lacked investment since the estate was built just after WWII.
I’m so happy we’ve listened to young people, we’ve taken action and we’re making it happen.”