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4 Acres of Freedom

Quite a long post this one - I felt I needed to give some background. But in case you don’t get to the end, here’s my big ask: that you, as a member of the local community, get on-board with Meanwhile’s project to develop a vision for our future. That vision is an essential first step in raising the funds we need, getting the lease we need from the council, and being true to our mission of really being, as fully as we possibly can be, “the garden at the heart of our community”. 

If you want to be involved, then send me an email introducing yourself to thefuture@meanwhile-gardens.org.uk and I will add you to the team.

Want to know more and understand the context? Then read on.

First - since I’m writing this in the first person, let me briefly introduce myself. I am Tony Curzon Price, the chair of the Meanwhile Gardens Community Association. The committee members are all volunteers, we are local, and we are all deeply committed to achieving the Association’s mission of making sure that Meanwhile is and remains “a garden at the heart of our community”. As a dad with young daughters in the 2000s, I loved the gardens as a user back then. The committee asked me to become Treasurer some years ago, and when the wonderful Susie Gretz stepped down as Chair 18 months ago, I took on the role. What I quickly realised with my new responsibilities was that the organisation urgently needed to sort out its leases with the council, and this is the context of everything I have been doing in my role, including the project that is the subject of this long post.

A bit of history

Meanwhile Gardens has an amazing history - it was created by the community out of derelict land in the late 1970s. The project’s original visionary, the artist Jamie McCullough, wrote an amazing book about getting the gardens built and the community behind it. The book is full of  practical detail, profound reflection and anecdotes of the time. I am hoping to get a reprint  for sale at the gardens.

Having only temporary authorisation to do anything with the land, the project was  called “Meanwhile” ... and now Meanwhile has a future that we must talk about.

But first a few more staging posts in our history. The early 1980s, with pretty good funding streams from the GLC, the Manpower Commission and others, saw Meanwhile being the centre of buzzing community life, with concerts, boat-building, skateboarding, gardening, BMX’ing, parties and more - the Channel 4 film by local producer/director Steve Shaw is an amazing testament to what good organisation and a bit of funding can do to a community space.

I don’t know much about the history of the gardens in the late 80s and 90s - I’d love to hear from anyone who knew it back then and can fill in the gaps. Some photos and memories would be great to have. A real milestone was reached in 1999 when we are granted, by the council, a 25 year lease on the eastern end of the gardens - essentially the whole gardens excluding the factory building, the courtyard garden, the polytunnels and the hard-standing. The granting of this lease allowed the community to apply for - and to get - very substantial funding (mainly from the Big Lottery) to build the new Playhut building, refurbish the skate-bowl and improve the whole gardens area.

But that left a big question mark hanging over the factory building and the Western end of the garden- the area between the Cobden Club and the Mind Garden that houses the factory building, the scented garden, the polytunnel, the mulching area and the hard-standing. We generally call this whole collection “the Factory site”.

This area building was used back then in all sorts of ways. Derek Myles Taylor, the then council planning officer, described  in his official planning evidence the way in which the factory site was essential to operation of the whole gardens:

The Association have been based in the factory buildings since 1976, and since then have been constantly involved in a wide variety of community projects, ranging from the maintenance of the gardens as a wildlife and recreation area and a general amenity asset, to running a boatclub, a pottery, a narrowboat for disabled people, providing a rehearsal space for a steel band, and providing educational opportunities for local schoolchildren.

This was - as it is now - the home of the Metronomes steel band. There was a pottery on site. Boat-building was in the workshop at the back. There were all sorts of educational activities going on, and, as today, it was the hub of volunteer gardening. The project had occupied the building since 1976, and the courtyard garden (the “scented garden”) had become a uniquely calm and charming local amenity. As Derek wrote, the garden and its activities had “been successful in enabling people to express a collective concern for the neighbourhood.” 

All of this is described in detail by the Council’s then Chief Planning officer, Derek Myles Taylor in his important planing appeal evidence - there is a copy of that over here.

Around 2007 - I am a bit sketchy on the exact dates, and maybe a local historian could spend some time reconstructing all these events - a developer with parts of the council and parts of the management committee, had come up with a plan for a large residential development on the site at the Western end of the gardens. Call it the Factory site, although remember it includes all the area between the Mind wildlife garden and the Cobden Club. 

There was a huge community outcry against the plan, led by ward councillor - then as now - Pat Mason. As the Taylor evidence makes clear, the development would have created 18 canal-side luxury flats, 8 affordable homes and would have left very little of the space that the gardens needs for servicing the whole space and for the other established activities in the factory. The Planning Appeal against the development was upheld - it was a huge community victory, the committee members who had backed the proposal left the association, and the community spirit that had gone out to fight was directed towards raising funds and the redevelopment of the rest of the garden area.

So much for the history - and by the way, please correct and add detail of that. I was not around and I am piecing it together. 

What of the future?

The factory building is in very poor repair. The loyal Metronomes are still with us, as are our volunteers. But much of the rest of the old activity has disappeared, either because the building can no longer be used as it once was - for example, there is no disabled access and the space is not up to scratch to be a modern nature classroom space for local schools; the roof is leaking badly and it is getting hard even to use it as an office - or because funding for community activities is much harder to find than it used to be.

We need to turn around the Factory site. How?

The solution, naturally, is for the community, helped by the committee and the association, push for a new vision and a new future for the Factory Site and then raise the funds for it. It has worked in the past and can work again in the future. 

The local community has done amazing things since the Grenfell Tragedy in terms of pulling all together and showing that it is possible to develop a positive vision, to raise funds and to organise. The campaigns to save the Library on Ladbroke Grove and the Wornington College are remarkable examples of the community asserting its needs and projects and succeeding. Meanwhile is a community asset that needs to tap into that huge positive energy to envision its own future - we have done it before, the local community has done it recently, and we will do it again.

So, we come up with a vision ... the next thing is to find the funders - and they exist, they really do, whether charities or local authority or Big Lottery - who will back it. But before anyone will sign a check, we need to have a secure lease on the space. It is going to cost a lot to bring that site up to scratch with whatever it is we want on it, and no one will fund that unless we have a long lease from the council. Whoever ends up backing our vision needs to know we’re here for the long term.

So here is what we - the association and the local community need to do:

1. We need to create a vision and a plan for the Factory site, something that genuinely is what we want, that comes from the community and has not been imposed from outside

2. We need to take that vision to the council and say to them: “We want to know that if we get this funded, you will do your bit and grant us the lease we need to make it work”

3. We need to go out and find the funds to make that vision real from wherever that is - charitable funders, the Lottery, council and government programs ... we’ll try the lot and shake the tree and find the means to create the future of Meanwhile. Look back at Jamie’s book of how Meanwhile was created - it was done like this. It was the passion of a community that allowed it to be born; it will be the passion of its community that will give the garden its future.

So ... next steps ...

The committee is planning an event in the summer - a celebration of Meanwhile and an opportunity to bring together community visions for its future that will set directions for the vision-building we must do. There’ll be lots more appearing on this blog about that event.

In the meanwhile - as it were - we want as many people as possible involved in this process. If you’d like to get involved, or just to be kept up to date, then send me an email introducing yourself to thefuture@meanwhile-gardens.org.uk and I will add you to the team.