Digging in: the deprived Bristol neighborhood learning to help itself | Social exclusion

ONE chilly winds whipped through Lawrence Weston on the north-west outskirts of Bristol, but Donna Sealey and her staff braved the bitter weather to spruce up raised beds in front of the shopping parade.

“Next summer these will be full of herbs – sage, rosemary, marjoram, whatever people tell us they want,” said Sealey, a community development worker at the charity Ambition Lawrence Weston (ALW). “We also plant fruit and nut trees, and we have just started work on a joint allocation.

“A lot of people in Lawrence Weston live in apartments without gardens. We’re going to grow produce on our green spaces and residents will be able to take what they need, and we’ll use some for cooking classes and community meals.”

Mark Pepper, head of development for the Ambition Lawerence Weston charity, and former social and youth worker. Photo: Karen Robinson/The Observer

The raised beds are just a small example of what the charity is all about – helping people in one of the most deprived areas of Bristol by creating ways for the community to help themselves, especially in these times of crisis.

ALW has other, much bigger schemes, including building what it says will be England’s largest onshore windmill five miles away on the banks of the River Severn. Excavators and a crane prepare the ground for the turbine, which will feed power to the central grid from next year.

The leaves are due to turn in the spring and the money made – estimated at £100,000 annually to begin with – is likely to be used to help local people through the cost of living crisis by helping them with electricity bills or retrofitting homes with energy-saving measures.

In February, construction of 38 homes for social rent and shared ownership is due to start with designs shaped by the estate’s residents, and work is also about to start on a new ALW community hub.

Right now, ALW is helping those most in need get through the winter by handing out emergency packs of slow cookers, hot water bottles and LED lights and opening up the center for people to charge their phones and warm up over a cup of tea.

Donations for this year Guardian and Observer annual charity appeal will go – through our two partners, Locality and Citizens Advice – to a range of local charities and community projects such as ALW, who work on the frontline of the cost of living crisis in some of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

Prepare the ground for the largest onshore windmill in England in Bristol.
Prepare the ground for the largest onshore windmill in England in Bristol. Photo: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Great grandmother Jacki Crouch, who used to work at the post office, had just collected her emergency package from ALW. She said it had been a “godsend” over the years, from helping to sort damp in the home to providing a Christmas meal during the pandemic. The young members of her family have enjoyed walks along the coast thanks to ALW. “They do so much for so many people,” she said.

At ALW headquarters, Norman Laity, 78, described how another of the charity’s groups, Men in Sheds, was helping people learn new skills – and combat isolation. Laity makes beautiful pens. In spring and summer, the group decorates flower pots and refurbishes garden furniture. “We get all kinds of people here, from ages 25 to 80. It’s a great way to get people out of their houses and spending time together,” he said.

Even before this winter’s crisis, 6% of the population in Avonmouth and Lawrence Weston ward used food banks compared to just under 2% citywide. Almost 17% found it difficult to cope financially, compared to 9% for Bristol as a whole, and 17% of children were ‘in need’.

Mark Pepper, head of development at ALW and a former social and youth worker in the area, said the situation was the worst it had been. “Before the crisis hit us, people saved and saved, so God knows how it’s going to be now. Demand has gone through the roof.”

Norman Laity of the Men in Sheds group
‘We get all sorts of people here, from ages 25 to 80’: Norman Laity of the Men in Sheds group. Photo: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Pepper said the charity’s success was based on approaching large schemes like the wind turbine in a commercial, professional way, creating a separate entity for ALW – Ambition Community Energy – which is run by volunteers but with two paid project managers.

If a large company like Amazon wanted to set up a wind turbine, they would bring in the expertise to do it. In the past, societies have been expected to learn how to do that. We don’t have time for that.”

ALW has had to fill in many gaps. There is no municipal library in the neighborhood, so ALW runs a book exchange; no municipal youth club, so the ALW center hosts clubs and activities. ALW campaigned for the bustling new Lidl in Lawrence Weston, even hiring a retail consultant to ensure a big name saw the value of moving in.

Of course, Pepper said, the government should be doing more. “Food banks should not be here. We shouldn’t have to hand out hot water bottles to old people just to keep them warm. It’s disgusting, really, given the amount of wealth we have in this country. But that’s where we are at the moment and we’ll continue to do what we can.”

Donations to the Guardian and Observer charity appeal can be made online by credit card, debit card or PayPal, or by phone on 0151 284 1126. We cannot accept cheques.

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