Newtown: A place to be proud of
Through providing, improving and reclaiming shared community spaces, grassroots organisations in Newtown are giving the community a sense of local pride and a set of vital assets to help society bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic as collaboratively as possible. Temoor Iqbal looked into three projects leading this charge.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s main impact on public spaces was to reduce their use, with lockdowns keeping people indoors and apart from one another. However, the pandemic also sparked a revival of interest in the role and future importance of shared public space, by way of bringing communities closer together.
That’s not to suggest that work to create shared, communal or community-owned spaces is new – our grant holders across the UK have years of experience bringing people together through the physical spaces that unite them.
Their work can now serve as an example to inform future local and national practice, whether that’s under the umbrella of building back from the pandemic or simply making communities better, more sustainable places to live.
And when it comes to exemplars, Newtown in Wales leads the way with a number of community-led projects regenerating public spaces and creating new ones to improve quality of life for everyone in the town.
Accessible for all
Shared spaces can only serve their purpose if they’re accessible and inviting to a broad range of people. The Cwm Harry Get Growing project started life at the back of an industrial warehouse on the outskirts of town, but was able to move thanks to a £230,000 grant through the People and Places programme.
“We moved to a two-acre holding with a bungalow and barns, under the ownership of NPTC Group of Colleges,” explains Gary Mitchell of Open Newtown, who worked on the project. The move allowed the project to develop into a vibrant, sustainable community garden. “We quickly noticed, when we moved to a more community-based site, a whole different range of people came to get involved, from every level of society,” says Gary.
“A lot of people came to us from really tough backgrounds, often with a lack of support, addiction issues, people who had lost their jobs, or those who were just feeling a bit lost.”
Having a community garden where people could learn about food growing, help pack veg boxes, and take care of the beds provided a vital social, physical and mental lifeline.
“I can honestly say that the garden site contributed to saving some people's lives, which is pretty amazing,” says Gary. “We got people out of the ruts they were in, and the mindsets they were in, just by getting them involved in a regular, practical session with a great bunch of staff and volunteers doing healthy activities outdoors.”
Over the five-year project period, “well over 2,000 people interacted with the garden,” according to Gary, and it still sees around 30 people get involved on a weekly basis, including college students with learning difficulties.
As well as producing food, the garden has expanded since the project finished in 2016. It now has a controlled environment agriculture suite, 40 micro-allotment plots, and hosts two other organisations – a men’s shed group and Bike to the Future, a repair and reuse organisation that works with disengaged young people.
“The journey has been from a very small enterprise reliant solely on National Lottery money for its early staffing needs and capacity development, to a self-sufficient organisation that's employing half a dozen people and doing some pretty amazing work as part of what’s now a really strong community ethos around local food in Newtown,” explains Gary. “I’m obviously biased, but I think it’s a real success story in terms of what the National Lottery money managed to achieve!”
I can honestly say that the garden site contributed to saving some people's lives, which is pretty amazing.Gary Mitchell, Open Newtown
Back to life
Economic trends over the past decade have led to many towns across the UK finding their centres underused, unattractive and in a poor state of repair. In Newtown, this was the case for the Grade-II listed 19th-century market hall, until Mid Wales Food and Land Trust applied for an £778,000 Community Asset Transfer grant to regenerate it.
“We wanted to ensure a long-term future for the market hall as a real trading market,” explains Project Manager Cath Smith. “At the time, it was under-utilised as a community resource due to its dark, dingy appearance and outdated layout. Our project planned to expand its use to enable wider community engagement, providing a town centre facility for social gatherings and training, cultural and educational opportunities.”
The group consulted the community, finding that there was real local appetite for an architecturally exciting development to revive the town centre, with the market hall also having strong positive associations for many long-term residents. This meant real community engagement and local buy-in from the start, which was essential in making the market hall feel part of the town’s culture again.
This community engagement included around 400 local school and college students working with Mid Wales Food and Land Trust to learn more about the town’s history and use the hall to learn business skills. “We supported them with local history projects, enterprise initiatives, work experience and fundraising opportunities through running market stalls,” says Cath. Local community groups have also been engaged, with over 50 attending a series of talks and visits, while almost 100 volunteers have helped by carrying out visitor surveys, historical research and heritage tours.
The hall, now known as Glanhafren, has quickly become a pillar of the local community. “We provide a regular venue for community groups who need a central meeting place in the town at little or no cost, so no one is excluded,” Cath says. “Improved accessibility allows disabled people to access all areas of the building; this is particularly valuable in Newtown where there is a lack of other open-access community spaces.”
Space in the hall is also hired out for educational courses and local start-ups, contributing to the wider Newtown economy. This is on top of the direct employment opportunities it offers. “The hall employs people who would otherwise face unemployment due to the local economic situation,” explains Cath. “It also offers real retail experience for those who find this hard to get because of their support needs.”
All of this work has combined to give Newtown a shared asset and community space that truly boosts local pride. “The people of Newtown have a real fondness for their market hall,” says Cath. “People appreciate that it’s now much easier for them to participate in market hall life and influence the activities within the hall.” This sense of ownership and control is crucial for a space to truly feel like it belongs to the community.
[The market hall] provides a regular venue for community groups at little or no cost, so no one is excluded.Cath Smith, Mid Wales Food and Land Trust
From desert to dreamland
Communities are never static – their nature is to grow, change and develop over time. Similarly, their shared spaces must change with them, meaning that regeneration and relocation may not be enough; sometimes a new asset is required for a new era. The Going Green for a Living project, led by Open Newtown, aims to provide this through a £1.2 million Community Asset Transfer grant.
“The project came out of some thinking around what Newtown could do and be if people had more access, more involvement and more engagement in green spaces,” explains Gary. “At the time, the Newtown bypass had just been announced and there was a fear the town centre would go into decline if people weren’t passing through as much anymore. And, at the same time, Powys County Council was putting out the message that it could not afford to maintain green spaces to the standards people were used to.”
This came to a head during the preparations for Newtown Carnival in 2018, when volunteers had to cut and clear the festival field themselves. “That created an immediate visual call to action,” says Gary, which focused people’s attention on the importance of local green spaces. The group harnessed this by looking into what was important to people in the town.
“We, and other organisations, have done a lot of consultation with local people, through events, through pop-up shows, through surveys and in schools. From these consultations, a vision was created based on what people told us, and a community-led action plan was created by the residents of the town. This highlighted that green spaces were important to people’s wellbeing, and the plan was subsequently adopted into the town council’s project planning.”
After the award of the funding, things moved quickly, with the project and its partners beginning to transform the look and feel of the town. This includes planting 4,500 trees, converting 30 acres into urban hay meadows, putting in an accessible wildlife pond, building a play park in the centre of town, planting orchards, creating an edible growing trail, building a new cycle storage hub, and installing a BMX track and an urban mountain biking track. The project has also built four access points for watersports along the Severn, providing river access to partially sighted residents and people of limited mobility.
“Previously, it was 130 acres of mown desert,” says Gary, highlighting the depth of the change. “The flexibility that the Fund gave us through the process was absolutely paramount in achieving what we’ve achieved so far. Most Community Asset Transfer projects involved buildings in some way, but ours was all about land. We were fortunate this wasn’t seen as too much of a risk, and we also had the town council and the local authority on board.”
What’s more, the work isn’t stopping yet. “Our biggest project – the Riverside Venue – is a newbuild Passivhaus community hub for the town,” explains Gary. “We want it to be a beacon of sustainability and a gateway to our green spaces.” On the back of all this work, Newtown has received further funding from the Welsh Government and the Transition Network, which will further improve its communal green spaces in the years to come.
This type of ongoing development of shared spaces, particularly outdoor ones, is increasingly important given the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and growing environmental awareness. As part of this, it’s vital to ensure people remain engaged in the work and see the results as being for them and belonging to the community.
Among others, many of our Climate Action Fund projects are working to reinforce this link between natural spaces and the wider community. Also, our forthcoming report on outdoor spaces (due to be published early 2022) will explore the work we’ve done across our programmes in more depth, at a time when exemplars and beacons of how to create sustainable communal space are needed more than ever. This will shine a light on the Fund’s role in helping communities like Newtown to rediscover the health, wellbeing and community benefits of shared assets and local pride.