Community Organisers Blog
Plot 35 – Devizes
We first met Martin and Niki when they came on our Community Organising Training at Community First in the Spring. They had both been registered with Richmond Fellowship and had a history of mental health issues which had impacted on lots of different aspects of their lives. They would meet with a group of individuals with similar issues and volunteer at Devizes’ Caen Hill Farm. They found this physical outdoor work very therapeutic – it helped with their mental well-being and also combatted loneliness.
Earlier this year funding was cut unexpectedly, and the Caen Hill farm outreach programme was bought to an end and the group found itself with nowhere to go. Desperate to keep the group together and occupied, Martin and Niki began looking into what was on offer locally. They were looking for a location where the group could meet – a “hub” as Niki described it; ideally outdoors as the group’s members decided that they benefited from physical work outside and being in the fresh air. But they were unable to find anything suitable.
Instead, Martin and Niki decided to take initiative. They came up with the idea of setting up a Community Allotment Group; the idea was appealing because it combined an outdoor meeting place which was relatively accessible and brought with it the opportunity to grow vegetables together and have a chat over a cup of tea. They immediately applied the lessons that they had learned on the Community Organising Training organising, connecting and showing leadership.
They contacted Wiltshire Council and were given an allotment plot for free. They informed the Council of their intention to install a shed and a polytunnel and were told that this would not be a problem, that they would need to follow an application process and as soon as it was formalised, they would be given the go-ahead. However, the following week they received a letter from the Council telling them that they would not be allowed to have a structure on their allotment. Martin and Niki felt terribly let down, and also very worried. They knew that the allotment would only work as a meeting place for the Group if there was somewhere sheltered to sit, particularly during the winter months.
Determined to do something, they appealed the decision, and the following month attended Devizes Town Council’s Planning Committee armed with all the information they needed. Martin had prepared a speech which he delivered to the meeting. The initial reaction from Council members was quite negative: the structure might be blown away or upset the neighbours. Responding to Martin the Mayor of Devizes, Judy Rose, got up to speak. She addressed the committee and spoke with great passion and honesty about her own experiences of depression when she was a teenager, and how she wished that she had been able to meet regularly with others who were suffering in a similar way. Judy ended her speech by declaring her support for the appeal. After Judy had sat down, a member of the Planning Committee stood to share his history of mental health problems. He too pledged to support the appeal. This was enough to persuade the rest of the Planning Committee to reverse their earlier decision and give permission for the group to install a shed and the polytunnel on their allotment site. Martin and Niki were thrilled! The Group had found a new home, and this security has given them the confidence to open a business bank account and draft a constitution. Next step was to apply for funding so that they could purchase the poly tunnel, some tools and seeds. A lengthy application form was filled in by Martin and Niki and sent off and they have just heard that they have been awarded their funding grant! Such good news, the Plot 35 Community Allotment Project is now up and running.
It struck me how powerful it was that Martin and Niki’s story encouraged not just one but two people to speak out about their own journeys with mental health. Two people who might not have spoken out had Martin not decided to be open about the problems that he had experienced. A very brave decision.