Planting the seeds of change on big estate

Michelle Wilding, the project manager at the WeBigLocal initiative at Wecock Farm 'Picture Ian Hargreaves (150987-3)
Michelle Wilding, the project manager at the WeBigLocal initiative at Wecock Farm 'Picture Ian Hargreaves (150987-3)
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The fortunes of Wecock Farm are on the up. There is a new optimism about the future of the estate, boosted by the prospect of £1m of investment in local projects over the next decade. JEFF TRAVIS went to find out more.

Fifty years ago it was acres of picturesque farmland, woodland and a few farmsteads.

By the 1970s it rapidly grew to become one of Portsmouth City Council’s largest council estates.

And ever since, Wecock Farm has struggled to shake off an unfortunate reputation of being not a very nice place to live.

The reality in 2015 is rather different, however.

Twelve years ago a new community centre was built at the heart of the estate and, slowly but surely, the area is becoming a happier and friendlier place to call home.

Two years ago the lottery announced that Wecock had won £1m-worth of funding to be spent over the next 10 years.

The aim of WeBigLocal is to inspire people on the estate and improve health and well-being, skills, prospects and opportunities.

And residents will decide where the money is invested, rather than any politician or council.

I meet the easy-going Michelle Wilding, who manages the project, at The Acorn Centre in Wecock.

The project is coming up to the end of its first year and so far a plethora of activities have been organised.

The estate now has its own community gardening initiative, Here We Grow, and Michelle proudly takes me to a leafy allotment that is nestled among blocks of flats.

There is a street dance group called ‘We Groove’ and people of all ages regularly meet up for tea dances at the community centre.

Earlier this year neighbours set up tables and chairs in the streets and enjoyed a community lunch.

Michelle, 32, who lives in Waterlooville, says the project is ‘organic’ and even she is not sure what the next initiative will be as it’s all up to the residents.

Just £30,000 of the £100,000 allocated to the first year has been spent, but it will all go back into the pot for future years.

‘It’s a million pounds to spend over 10 years to make the community a better place to live,’ says Michelle.

‘It’s linked with what the residents tell us they need.

‘This year has been about engaging and running more activities.

‘It’s quite a big task to spend the money.

‘It sounds like a lot, but it’s over 10 years.

‘It’s making sure the money is spent in the right way.

‘We are still trying to get out there and make sure people understand this is for them.

‘We rely on people coming in and saying “I want to explore this idea”.

‘We had a gentleman who didn’t believe the money was real.

‘Two weeks later he put in a bid because he wanted to take some kids fishing.

‘It’s about empowering the community to get more involved.’

Nine residents, covering a cross-section of the estate, sit on the board and decide where the money goes when grant applications come in.

There is yet to be a big single project that will cost more than £5,000.

Sean Nye, 49, who has lived in Wecock for eight years, sits on the board.

He says: ‘It’s a really great opportunity, with decisions made by the residents of where the money is spent and not by the local authority.

‘The mix of authorities round here is very confusing as we have Havant, Portsmouth, a little bit of Winchester and East Hampshire.

‘Wecock has got a rubbish reputation from when it was first built 30 years ago.

‘The reputation may not have changed, but the people have changed.

‘You have people wanting to move on to the estate now.

‘We have a lack of physical resources on the estate which is proving to be a big problem.

‘So where do we run a bike club? Basically we have this one community centre, so that’s something we need to look at.’

But transforming the estate is as much between the ears as it is building physical resources.

Sean says the biggest benefit of running activities and getting people involved in community life is the empowering effect and giving individuals more confidence in life.

Residents have been asked about where they would like the money to go, but more feedback is still needed.

Sean says: ‘When we did the consultation initially, people said they wanted a swimming pool and a new park.

‘Yes we could spend a million on a new park, but who’s going to look after it?’

Michelle, who is assisted by Karen Clark in co-ordinating the project, says she has been impressed by the community spirit and enthusiasm over the past year.

She says: ‘We did a tea dance on Valentine’s Day and that was really interesting.

‘You would expect an older audience. We had a table full of teenagers; they loved it!

‘We had a high tea with the little sandwiches and all the vintage china.’

The focus for the next year will include developing activities that give people practical skills and even qualifications to help them with work prospects.

More after-school clubs and a bicycle workshop are planned. The rest is up to the people to decide over the coming years.

In 10 years’ time, Sean hopes the project will have had a transformational effect.

He says: ‘I’d like to see residents be able to access more opportunities.

‘At the moment if someone wants to get skills or get a job, they are moving outside the area.’

Michelle, who had not been to Wecock much before getting the job, has been pleasantly surprised by what she has found and the warmth of the people.

She says: ‘When I went for the job, I Googled Wecock Farm and what comes up, I thought “Oh my god”.

‘But coming in and seeing what the reality is has been completely different.

‘There’s a very proud community and a lot of people who are proud of where they live.’

Projects helped so far

- A community garden set up on a piece of land handed over by Portsmouth City Council

- A Valentine’s tea dance that was so successful that a social dance is held every first Saturday of the month at The Acorn Centre

- The Big Lunch event – seven different groups of residents were awarded £100 each to hold a street party

- Vinyl Meltdown, a group running a social enterprise into DJing received £500

- Take A Seat, an enterprise group which up-cycles furniture was awarded £500

- Wecock Memorial Garden was awarded £500

- Mess Machine is a group which run on a Sunday at Hart Plain Church for young children and their parents to enjoy some messy play. They received £500

- The project funded a fishing trip for young people along with the charity Motiv8. The amount given was £400