Work has started on a new £680,000 community centre in west Leeds. The Big Lottery Fund is ploughing the money into the new New Wortley Community Centre, which serves an area blighted by addiction problems, mental health issues and poverty. Despite the issues, community leaders are quick to paint a picture of great community – and fighting – spirit in the area. West Leeds Dispatch paid them a visit to find out more …
The first thing you realise when speaking to Maureen Ingham is that she’s passionate about her community. And – as a community activist and vice chair of the New Wortley Community Association which runs the centre – she’s learned how to be a fighter, which is a skill that’s come in handy over the years.
New Wortley is one of the few community run centres in the city and Maureen and the committee have had to use every ounce of effort just to keep the centre going over the years. It’s sometimes been a struggle on many levels, not least financially.
She’s also a resident of the nearby estate – and becomes animated when she talks about how residents successfully fought off plans from the council to demolish the existing council estate and ‘gentrify’ the area about eight years ago. Maureen explains:
“If you shout loud enough and listen and form yourself into a group you can move mountains. By ensuring that the voice of the estate was heard we fought our corner and we showed the true power of the community if you can mobilise it. Resources weren’t the issue, it was voices that mattered.
“They were trying to turn it into an extension of LS1. They wanted to gentrify it but we weren’t having any of that. We go them to change their minds.”
Over the years the estate’s ‘voice’ has helped to secure many improvements, including house insulation and gas central heating. Maureen adds:
“Here at New Wortley we’re unique. We are a wholly owned by the community, we have a board of directors who are made up of community members. We believe that the people in power don’t know what the word ‘community’ is about. They have too much money and are too far removed in Westminster. What we’ve done we’ve ought and argued for ourselves.
“David Cameron should come and visit us here and see what life is really like.”
It might be a building site outside… pic.twitter.com/uGQPa7cbrX
— ‘New Wortley CC’ (@NewWortleyCC) August 24, 2015
Fighting (and refreshingly honest) talk indeed, particularly from someone who also sits on the council as a Labour ward member for Burmatofts and Richmond Hill. It’s that fighting spirit that’s got New Wortley to the position it’s in today – excavators and builders hard at work building the new centre as we chat. Maureen, a local resident of 45 years, adds:
“For me it’s been a lifelong vision to get the centre to this stage. It’s been a challenge to keep the funding going.
“The centre is a vital part of what continues to be a deprived and neglected area of Leeds. We work with the people of New Wortley and we turn people’s lives around. This Big Lottery funding is a huge step in the right direction for us to continue to do the work we do and to progress towards a future where the centre can be self-funded.
“But it’s not about having a new building by itself – it’s what happens in it that matters. It’s about people, not bricks and mortar.”
We’re joined in the conversation by chairman Bryan Bloom, whose family has run a pharmacy in the area for half a century. He points out the area has the highest number of male suicides in the city. Life expectancy in the New Wortley area is 10-12 years less than other parts of west Leeds and, he says, that’s where New Wortley comes in – it helps people in difficult circumstances turn around their lives.
He pays tribute to the work of the centre’s community development manager Bill Graham, who’s brought both an understanding of the community and, crucially, a some business acumen to help develop the organisation.
“Bill’s our kingpin – every centre should have a Bill. He understands what the word ‘community’ means. You’ve got to be able to relate to the people and understand and listen to what people want. Bill is a very valuable asset – he goes out and develops the community.
“People said to us we would never get a new building but we have and we’re continuing to change people’s lives each day.
“Commerciality is not the panacea we hoped it would be. While we’re adept at getting funding to run specific groups and activities, finding the core funding to keep a community development manager has proven more difficult, but without someone like Bill we couldn’t hope to achieve everything we have.”
Securing funding to pay for Bill’s position in the future is something which clearly pre-occupies both Maureen and Brian.
Both Bryan and Maureen are also very forthcoming to highlight the support they’ve had over the years from Armley councillors Jim McKenna, Alison Lowe and Alice Smart, as well as former councillor Janet Harper, who retired last year. She also mentions the support of Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves. Maureen adds:
“They’ve been terrific and have backed us all the way along. Without their backing and support – which includes financial support – we’d have really struggled. We’re really grateful for their help.”
So what of the future? The new centre is set to open probably sometime late summer next year. Facilities are due to include a job club, youth group, fitness classes, housing and multi-agency surgeries, lunch clubs and residents’ association meetings among other things.
There are hopes to renovate the existing dilapidated community centre and run it alongside the new building as a wellbeing centre. The move would double the capacity of services provided by New Wortley Community Association.
It might be a building site outside…but pic.twitter.com/uGQPa7cbrX
— ‘New Wortley CC’ (@NewWortleyCC) August 21, 2015
The centre was designed by architecture students at Leeds Beckett University, without whom the new centre would have struggled to have become a reality. Maureen adds:
“We’re hoping the way the centre is designed and its location means it will draw more people in off the street and have a much more attractive and prominent frontage, and that people living and working in the area will pop in for a sandwich or a coffee.
“People have said to us that they’d seen the railings off Tong Road and didn’t know there was a community centre here, that we were part of the jail or something. Again, it’s all about changing people’s perceptions of the area.”
The new centre looks certain to go some way to achieving that – and continue to support local people who need help and change lives in a community that’s fought hard to keep its own identity.
For a list of activities now running, check out the centre’s website.