The new Wellesley development on the former Wellesley Garrison site will create a new neighbourhood of 3,850 homes, 35% of this is affordable housing. Existing Victorian buildings, several of which are listed, have been incorporated into the plans. The Cambridge Military Hospital will become part residential, part community space. At the end of 2018, around 280 homes were occupied, with some 600 people living on the site.
The development is led by Grainger plc who will take long-term responsibility for managing the neighbourhood and providing private rented homes. A number of other developers are building homes for outright sale, with shared ownership being built by registered provider Grainger Trust Limited.
Community development has been a priority for both Grainger plc and Rushmoor District Council. A full time permanent community development manager post was created as part of the s106 agreement.
Grainger plc state:
“Wellesley will respect Aldershot’s heritage while fully embracing modern-day living. Grainger’s vision is to enrich the area’s already strong community spirit, and create a place that people feel proud to call home”. (1)
Grainger plc see building communities as a central element of their long-term stewardship strategy. This is integral to their commercial strategy as long-term landlords. A Grainger representative commented,
“The best way of building a community is for everyone to be happy, open and honest. Grainger as a company have a nice ethos, they are first of all a landlord. So our emphasis on how to get people to stay with us, and to rent with us for the long term. If we make everyone happy and then the rest will come.”
Grainger work closely with developers’ sales team and contractors to make sure they can link in to local areas. Is important to Grainger that they are part of the efforts to build a community from the first step. In terms of developing specific activities for residents, the approach is:
“Thinking on a human level, what would be fun, what would you like to do?”
Communications with residents are through a range of standard formats and media - a general Wellesley email address, an open door policy, boards in the main office showing recent plans, social media and regular forms for residents so they can raise issues with Grainger and the land agents – as well as specific activities.
Grainger puts on events to try to bring people together. Over 200 people attended the November 2018 fireworks display, at a time when the total population of the development, is around 600. The fireworks took place in the temporary playpark area, with one of the contractors donating time to set up the bonfire.
The facilities on site for residents at this stage include:
The playpark. Within the s106 agreement this is to be delivered after a certain number of occupations, however it has been bought forward to give families somewhere to go as a temporary facility, on a smaller scale than the permanent playpark will eventually be.
The community portacabin has Wi-Fi and a kitchen. The community room is well used – more so than expected. There is a mixture of classes – including several yoga classes, and it is also hired for birthday parties and charity gatherings. It is on the site of the future neighbourhood centre. Grainger is looking at how this should best be provided in the future. There is a problem currently that with the new development growing there is not enough capacity for inside activities; currently the portacabin can only host 80 people at capacity. In the summer there are outside spaces to use, the problem starts when it becomes colder and darker.
One of the Victorian buildings - Mandora House – is currently run as a social enterprise centre, leased to WSX Enterprises. They rent out rooms to people looking to start own businesses, and have a café run by a social enterprise.
Residents have been encouraged to start a neighbourhood association. Residents are beginning to initiate projects, for example a local food box scheme. The Wellspring Community, a church organisation, has set up a new Christian community in the development and is organising events and supporting events organised by others. (4) Grainger let the Wellspring minister use the community room free of charge.
The Wellesley site has a rich and varied number of green spaces. Blackwater Valley Countryside Partnership has been hired to maintain green spaces and wildlife spaces. Wellesley Woodlands have been set up as a separate entity and employ a community engagement coordinator to build up activities. (6) This is part paid by Grainger, part paid by the Residents Trust. Rambles, bat walks and wreath making have all been organised. Grainger is also working with Fleet Bee Keepers and some community beehives are provided for residents.
The cost of the full time Community Development Worker is the main fixed cost, as costs of managing and maintaining community facilities is covered through service charges, through the Residents’ Trust.
The Community Development Manager post is key to leveraging resources, getting contractors to provide in kind donation of time and resources, and encouraging sponsorship.
Many events are low cost, only involving the community development manager’s staff time. For example volunteers ran the recent history tours.
Grainger plc have set up the Wellesley Residents Trust to manage the financial side the shared spaces and facilities, including the green spaces. All residents will be members of the Trust; the board includes representatives from Grainger, Rushmoor Council and Struttons. The Trust will hold the finances for all the service charges. 1,000 occupations will trigger the selection of a resident to sit on the board. The aim is that the Trust will,
“uphold and promote Wellesley’s vision for the area as well as ensure green spaces and estate areas are maintained to a high standard. All members of the WRT will be encouraged to engage with community led stewardship as the development progresses.” (1)
Residents pay for community facilities, including the Woodlands, through their service change so Grainger believe that it is important that there are “residents only” activities to demonstrate value.
Relationship with the wider Aldershot community
Grainger also aims to be a good partner for organisation in Aldershot, they sponsor the local 10k, ensure that contractors sponsor fireworks, and work with the MoD on Christmas event. They send out details of sports facilities, theatres and community events in their newsletter and in welcome packs for new residents. They worked with a local historian to organise tours for residents around the locally beloved Cambridge Military Hospital building before it was handed over to developers. They encourage Aldershot organisations – including theatres - to advertise events and what’s on around the development through leaflet drops.
Grainger have been open to working flexibly with local residents on particular needs. The allocated allotment site is larger than actually needed for allotments, so they are working with a member of the Nepali community to create a community garden for elderly Nepalis. There is a wish to provide more outdoor spaces for elderly Nepalis who traditionally have liked spending time outside. This will be built in two years time and is based on the Hawley Community Garden in Farnborough. (5) Grainger’s employment skills programme is encouraging local employment and skilling up the workforce. A house on site has been converted into a safe zone so young people on work experience can try out construction skills.
There is no formal evaluation of the scheme. The outcomes of putting extra resources into community building should be increased neighbourliness and social trust, and a stronger sense of local identity.
In directly quantifiable financial terms this should feed into greater involvement in volunteering which can reduce costs of running facilities (for example the history tours were provided at low cost working with a volunteer), and also into lower resident turnover. Low tenant turnover reduces costs for landlords. Boosting links between the existing Aldershot community and new Wellesley community should benefit people living in Aldershot more generally.
What are the risks and challenges for initiating and also maintaining this initiative?
The key challenge for this level of community development is resourcing sustainably. If support is not provided consistently over time then there is a danger that hopes may be raised.
Committing long-term resources to community development, and embedding this in the s106 agreement, provides continuity and stability for community work over time.
The value of using community development staff to leverage value from others is shown here. This includes work with contractors and partners, expecting them to contribute directly to community activities, as well as seeking out volunteers.
The community development strategy has also been opportunistic, for example working with local Nepali community contacts to develop proposals to make creative use of the space allocated for allotments.