So Wellington, what’s the big idea? Tell us down at the Ideas Farm…
The power of volunteers
Last week, I joined my mate Alex Di Donato – another London-dwelling son of Wellington – to watch some Olympic basketball in Greenwich. All around the Games venues in East London, purple-clad Olympic volunteers cheerily welcomed spectators and struck up conversations in a way we’re not accustomed to here in the capital. For a whole fortnight, all around the city, the atmosphere has been warm, friendly, and joyously optimistic. And a lot of that has been down to those volunteers – people who, for no financial gain or glory, gave their time and energy to take part and did so much to make the whole thing the success it was.
Clearly the London Olympics is not your average volunteering opportunity, but it’s still a useful reminder of the way in which volunteering – getting involved – can generate such positive energy in a place.
The Olympics involved about 70,000 volunteers. That’s a heck of a lot, and represents about 1% of Greater London’s population. Even in tiny Wellington, if the same percentage of our residents were to volunteer for a single project, it would amount to a not insubstantial 200 people. Just imagine what 200 people could do if they were all focused on one big project!
So what could that project be? What could enthuse us enough to marshall that sort of community effort? There are some good ideas out there at the moment, and if you’ve followed previous articles on this blog, you’ll have a sense of the sorts of things I personally have got in mind. Edgbaston House in Walker St remains empty – could we use at least the smallest and oldest part of it as an exhibition / gallery space to compliment the civic centre alongside?
Or more ambitious, could we take on the former NACRO building in Tan Bank – a fine Georgian chapel building – and turn it into a full-blown ‘Museum of The Wrekin Forest’? Could the soon to be vacant Dunelm building – formerly the Clifton Cinema – become a theatre? We know from the success of ventures like these in other towns what a massive impact they can have on a place when they succeed.
And then what about the old bus garage on Charlton Street? Or the oh-so sad Charlton Arms, which councillor Mike Ion seems to be busying away at trying to sort out? These are large, well-located sites which could become very mediocre redevelopments that add nothing to the town, or which could blossom into something fantastic – be that commercial, cultural or for community use. We MUST take the initiative now. And it doesn’t have to be one big idea about renovating a building - we might have lots of small ideas to bring people together to do something, make something or share something – the sorts of projects that are easier to tackle but which woven together enrich the look and feel of our town.
So the question is: how do we surface all the other ideas that are out there? And more than that, how do we get the people who are harbouring those ideas to share them, shape them, and play some part in making them happen?
It’s up to all of us
In the old days, the council would have come along, organised a badly worded survey or grim consultation event, and asked ‘what do you want us to do?’ We would have thrown a bunch of suggestions at them, they would have taken them away, and some of them might have seen some action several months later. But those days are gone. Councils simply don’t have the money to be doing new things; they’ve a hard enough job funding what they do at the moment. So we can shake our first at them, or at the government, or the bankers or anyone else we think deserves it. Or, we can get together and figure out a way to make these things happen in a different way.
Welcome to the Ideas Farm…
Wellington Ideas Farm is an exciting new project a few of us came up with at a town partnership meeting recently. The aim is to ‘harvest’ the ideas we all have for improving the town, especially around its arts, culture, heritage and environment, and to find ways to take action. The town partnership itself will be little-known to many people. Made up of representatives of the town councillors, the chamber of commerce, groups like the Civic Society and LA21, it has worked ‘behind the scenes’ for several years, acting as the accountable body for large grant-funded schemes like the townscape heritage initiative (which saw many traditional shopfronts reinstalled) and the town centre repaving. But now, with those funds dried up, the partnership knows that it has to start playing a different sort of role to make things happen – enabling, facilitating, joining the dots between organisations and volunteers, between ideas and the resources that do still exist out there, be it locally or nationally. The Ideas Farm is their first foray into this brave new world of community action.
So how will the Ideas Farm work?
Well, everyone’s invited to come along and share their practical ideas for brightening up the town and it’s ‘offer’. The first opportunity you’ll have to do this is on Thursday 23rd August in Market Square, 11am-2pm, where members of the town partnership will be there to talk to you about your ideas. We’ll hopefully repeat this session at least once in September. Then later in the year, perhaps October, we’ll be holding a big workshop event – a Harvest Festival, if you like – to really get stuck in to these ideas people have raised and working through some realistic ways of bringing them to fruition.
This event will involve some reflection on new projects that are already taking off in the town – Walkers are Welcome, the Peace Garden and so on – just to remind everyone what volunteer effort is already achieving in Wellington. People will then have opportunity to gather around a specific new idea that interests them and think about it in more depth. Hopefully we’ll get some councillors and council officers in the room as well – they may not be able to lead on the projects that emerge, but they will need to support them, either will time or expertise or modest amounts of seed funding. We may not get any firm progress in the room that day, but if we can at least start building the groups of people interested in being involved, that will be a solid start.
The point is that we all have to be the farmers –planting ideas, but then keeping a close eye on them, collectively nurturing them over time– not just leaving them at the mercy of the elements and hoping for the best. That doesn’t mean people are going to be saddled with responsibilities they don’t want – people will like to be involved in different ways and at different levels – but if we all do something, however small, think what we could achieve.
What ideas do you have for improving the town’s ‘offer’? What arts, heritage or environmental projects could put a bit more colour in the town’s cheeks? And how could we get them off the ground?
Start sharing your ideas below… and of course look out for our Ideas Farm events from 23rd August onwards.