In 2011 VAC and Somers Town Community Centre began looking at the new Localism Act to see how planning policy could affect real change in the way that communities are able to shape and design their local neighbourhood.
The project soon took off and here Sarah Elie, Director of Somers Town CC, talks to us about what difference this has made to the Somers Town community.
Q. Could you speak a bit about the Somers Town Community Centre?
Somers Town Community Centre is in the heart of the St Pancras and Somers Town ward and we serve residents primarily from there but we also get people from all over Camden and indeed all over London hiring out the facility. We’ve been here for nearly 30 years and deliver everything from a community café to an eighteen place community nursery, ESL classes, youth. You name it and basically we do it.
I am MD of the Community Centre and it’s my responsibility for the overarching strategic direction of the Community Centre and that’s where I first got involved with VAC.
Q. Where did you hear about VAC?
I’ve actually been involved with VAC for a long time but most recently in terms of the Localism Act and the whole neighbourhood planning agenda. VAC were also looking at the Localism Act and had been in touch with Camden Council about doing a blueprint around neighbourhood planning
As a community organisation we were looking to support local people to have a greater understanding about planning and how that has an impact on their lives and health etc. So we said we would go forward with that in December 2011 and without VAC we wouldn’t be where we are now with it.
Q. How so?
VAC has worked tirelessly with us. They made the connection to a guy called Michael Parkes, who’s a retired town planner and also a volunteer for Planning Aid for London. We had no experience of that whatsoever. So their volunteer has become our volunteer in terms of the Neighbourhood Forum. We set up a neighbourhood forum two months ago and it’s gone through the first stage of the process with Camden Council, it’s formal now. It has its constitution and the forum and boundaries have now been accepted.
All the way through that process VAC has held our hand in understanding the complexities of the different policies, frameworks and agendas. We’ve had no knowledge of planning but it has such an impact on our residents in terms of health, their well -being. So VAC has worked with us in setting up working groups which also ties in with other agendas of VAC in terms of health champions. So I think it’s been a good fit. While VAC has given us great support and been a great source of advice, guidance and expertise, I think we’re able to fit into their agendas of helping local communities as well.
We wouldn’t be where we are today without VAC and I have no doubt about that whatsoever. We were also successful with VAC support in getting Big Lottery Funding of one million pounds over ten years.
Q. What changes are you seeing?
We’ve had great collaboaration happening in the area. We’ve got the British Library, Francis Crick and St. Pancras sitting around the table with us. The Business Working group has been successful with Camden having asked us to deliver an employment and training project worth 120 thousand pounds over two years. So this partnership, originally created by a Neighbourhood Blueprint and Somers Town Community Association decision to really affect change at a much higher level, added to the partnership with VAC, means we have drawn over a million pounds for local residents. The local residents have been empowered. They’re talking about setting up a development trust to manage the assets.
Q. How would that work?
Somers Town is affected by the Community Investment programme, Camden’s management of its assets, and how it develops those assets to fund those assets that need funding. Long term strategy in Somers Town means this would affect large space areas.
VAC got in for us the Oxford Brookes University to explain land value. It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. We had the local school management and residents looking at the spread sheet at how a developer would actually value a piece of land and looking at the figures at how to manage that surplus in terms of reinvesting into the community.
So all those connections are coming together and more than that, there’s a vibe around here now.
People are saying we can make a difference. People are on the same level because they’re all sitting at the same table. Without those stakeholders I doubt we’d have got the money, the 120k from Camden. That’s Camden recognising you’ve got enough big hitters around that table. I’ve been able to tell the stakeholders, this is a chance for you to go over and above your corporate social responsibility and become part of this community. Before the local residents have felt they’ve turned their back to them. And give them their due, British Library and St. Pancras have come up trumps. We’ve got the Head of Advocacy attending meetings, head of public services from the Library coming to meetings, St Pancras offering training and placements, a bit of a hybrid project that they’re leading on for ten people from our Youth forum – it goes on.
Our profile has gone through the roof; we’ve gone from nought to fifty in two seconds. VAC has opened doors in terms of funding and different avenues with Big Local and things like that. These are massive programmes in terms of funding and that’s endowments so it can grow.
To find out more about Somers Town Community Centre please visit their website at: www.somerstown.org.uk.