Mark Pepper -50 years in Lawrence Weston
Mark Pepper, Development Manager of Ambition Lawrence Weston feels people moving to Lawrence Weston today are very lucky. This is in stark contrast to how our conversation started, about Mark’s first memories and experiences of the estate since being born here 50 years ago.
“Not many people wanted to be here”, says Mark. “people got chucked here, and I was like everyone else on that estate. People thought they would be moving on from a cold poor quality flat to a better house, so they didn’t waste energy on putting down roots.”
Born and bred in the area, Mark first moved from his parents’ family home to a flat on the Lawrence Weston estate as a teenage parent. Mark explains that in those days, the Lawrence Weston community was much more transient; families and individuals would be moved into council housing, and they would typically be moved on again pretty quickly, into bigger and better accommodation, if the family needed it. So people didn’t tend to invest in community relationships or use many local services.
People would also move to the area without support networks. Not many, but some would have drug and alcohol problems, or like Mark they might be teen parents, so social problems would fester and the prospects for the area felt bleak.
Mark tells me he first got into youth work for self-proclaimed “selfish reasons”, due to his own four kids. He found that there wasn’t much for them to do, so he helped out at a kick-boxing club, and later a BMX and bike track for local youngsters.
It was about that time, around 25 years ago, Mark met Ronnie from Quartet, who offered some project investment for Lawrence Weston. I asked Mark how it made a difference to him.
That work, and his supportive interest in his kids and their friends, led Mark into the world of community development. “I did voluntary youth work at first” says Mark, who worked for Connexions, then in residential care, then with ‘early interventions and prevention’ work with social care, and then he got involved with ‘Juicy Blitz’ Youth Involvement Project, a young people’s health and participation project based in a juice and smoothie bar on the Lawrence Weston parade.
Now a veteran of community development work in the area, Mark leads new developments at Ambition Lawrence Weston which has recently moved to Long Cross Youth and Community Centre, which was left vacant after the youth services there were closed as part of recent cuts – just one of many casualties of “asset-stripping” in Lawrence Weston, which has seen residents lose their local swimming pool, a local college, a school, library and an adult learning centre.
Ambition itself has been going since 2012. It’s a resident-led organisation, which at times has been one of their biggest challenges. “People locally are very time-poor”, says Mark. “Lots of workers are on zero-hour contracts, and had no appetite for contributing to community meetings on their very rare days off.”
Like many community development projects, Lawrence Weston was also the occasional recipient of outside influence – regional and even national programmes, led by professionals who would “swoop in” not necessarily understanding the community or the challenges they faced, and who would then leave as soon as the funding was spent, with little thought given to sustainability or a proper succession plan.
“You’d build up interest and resident membership for something project-specific”, says Mark, “and the moment it ended all that support and engagement would fizzle away again, and with it would go all the knowledge and relationships that went with it.”
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the cuts, especially in housing provision, have had unintended yet positive effects. Nowadays, due to lack of social housing, people no longer have the opportunity to move on to bigger social housing, so people are staying put, and that could be good news for the community work Mark is involved in.
“Residents are more consistent now”, says Mark. “And we’ve moved away from ‘top-down’ agenda-setting from outsiders; it wasn’t sustainable and it used to put off residents. We’ve changed the ‘balance of power’ and there are now about 60 active residents who are staying and working together, and about 230 members.”
One of the residents’ biggest achievements was creating a community plan, ‘The Way forward’. Quartet supported Ambition to train a team of residents to door-knock, and they managed to canvas 1,200 residents about various issues affecting them, including what they felt was missing in their area, and ideas on how to plug the current service gaps arising from austerity. “The Plan is very easy to read”, says Mark. “It’s allowed residents to make the final decisions, and it supports our work because we have a clear mandate from the people we represent.”
Having a clear mandate has allowed Mark and the team to make some great investments for the future. They were successful in getting some ‘Big Local’ funding, one of 150 areas to benefit in the UK. They’re also making some long-term strategic income-generation deals, supporting the community for years to come, including a solar farm with the Bristol Energy Cooperative and a supermarket. In total the residents that are Ambition Lawrence Weston have brought in over £5m of investment to the local area.
So much has changed in a comparatively short time; there’s the city farm, the BMX bike track, Blaise Castle parks estate is nearby, a cafe recently opened in that part of the estate where there didn’t used to be any facilities, two new playparks, a long awaited supermarket, and soon a new community and health hub.