Using residents' voices to create a neighbourhood strategy
Our journalist-at-large, Ryan Herman, speaks to Leigh Neighbours project officer Stephen Ruffley about the area’s housing project that hears from local voices and aims to make affordable accommodation available to residents.
The broad objective of the Big Local programme is to make communities better places to live.
That is, of course, a lot easier said (or typed) than done.
But when Stephen Ruffley set about trying to understand what were the issues causing concern among the residents in Leigh West, Greater Manchester, his solution was to build a scaled-down model of the catchment area.
“We used a scheme called Planning for Real,” says Stephen, who is project officer for Leigh Neighbours Big Local.
“You take a 1 to 300 scale of a local map, put it on to boards, take it to a local school and you get the kids to colour it in. Then you can turn the map into a 3-D representation or plan of your community by adding local landmarks and houses.
“I went into high schools, libraries, and attended church services. In fact, one of the ministers made his sermon about community. I would take a couple of trestle tables, a gazebo, free bowls of fruit and would go anywhere where people gathered in numbers.
We wanted to engage with every strand of the community.”
“People could write down suggestions, wrap them around a cocktail stick and place them in a road or area where they felt an issue needed to be addressed.
“So somebody would highlight drug dealing, or the need for a bike lane, or fly-tipping.
“We got feedback from the homeless, asylum seekers, refugees and people who have always lived here. We wanted to engage with every strand of the community.”
The Planning for Real process took place over several years up until 2018, by which point they had over 700 people interviewed who contributed more than 2,500 suggestions. This formed the basis of the Leigh Neighbours community plan.
It soon became clear that the biggest concerns revolved around a combination of bad tenants, private landlords and the condition of their properties.
“Most of Leigh looks like its straight out of the set of Coronation Street,” he explains. “When you walk into somebody’s house and it feels like an oasis calm from the world outside. Then you step out of the front door straight on to the pavement, but more often than not that pavement will be blighted with dog mess, cans and litter.”
Could we take over a rundown property, refurbish it, bring in new tenants and set an example for others?”
It has caused tensions within the town. The easy target for this anger has been influx of migrants workers, sometimes living in multi-occupancy housing, with a high turnover of tenants. This, in turn, can create a transient population with little or no long-term vested interests in the community.
“When we looked at the percentage of private lets in one area it was between 10-12% whereas it’s 3% elsewhere. So, we had an idea. Could we become the exemplar landlord? Could we take over a rundown property, refurbish it to a good standard, bring in new tenants and set an example for others?”
Towards the end of 2020, Leigh Neighbours purchased two homes. Individually they cost just £59,999, with a further £30,000 to be spent on refurbishing each property.
Stephen adds, “There are four or five councils in Greater Manchester that set up a partnership and created this model of an ‘ethical lettings agency’.
“It’s different to a local authority housing association. They are renting homes off private landlords, making sure the properties are of a good standard. The landlord doesn’t have to worry about repairs or maintenance or managing the tenants. There isn’t enough social housing, so it’s a way of councils expanding their portfolio of social let properties.
This is a pilot scheme but hopefully, we’ll keep buying because we want to make a real impact in this community.”
“The key word for us is ethical. Lettings agencies make their money through churn, but we want to put tenants in properties who will stay there for several years. They will have a stake in the community, they will send their kids to the local schools.
“This is a pilot scheme for us. But hopefully, we’ll keep buying because we want to make a real impact in this community. It will also be an income stream after the Big Local programme ends in 2026. We’ve become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation, so we can continue for many years to come. People want this to carry this on beyond five years time.”
Leigh Neighbours is not the first Big Local area to enter into the property market. In Bradley, East Lancashire, they have built and sold homes at 20 percent below the market value to people with a connection to the community.
We’re proud of who we are and we want people to be proud of where they live.”
In Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire, they worked in partnership with Barnsley Community Build and Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council to take over derelict properties, create jobs for local builders and apprentices and deliver quality affordable homes to rent.
In each case, the broad objective is to make their communities better places to live.
But also it’s about restoring pride and confidence.
Stephen adds, “Last year, we worked with a local artist, Martin Lucas, and supported a project called the Wall of Fame. It’s about celebrating local heroes. We’re the home of Pete Shelley, the world’s oldest amateur dramatic society, Alfred Victoria Cross hero Alfred Wilkinson, ‘Mother of the Sea’ Kathleen Drew-Baker (who is revered in Japan as the saviour of the sushi industry). We’ve got a rich history here.
“A lot of people run our town down and a lot of people run our project area down. I’m sure that’s the case for a lot of Big Local areas.
“But we’re proud of who we are and we want people to be proud of where they live.”
This feature is part of our series on Big Local responses to COVID-19, written by Ryan Herman, our Journalist-at-large. If you have a story you would like to share, please email Ryan.