Community businesses in one of the most remote parts of the country met up to discuss a challenge they face every day. The third Power Up! event took place at the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford, Norfolk. Councillor Terry Jeremy shares his highlights.
When a former High School in rural Norfolk closed and was threatened with demolition, a small group of Councillors and community activists got together to brainstorm ideas to save it.
The challenge was, as it is so often is, to think about what might be possible rather than focus on the usual barriers to not do something. In rural communities that challenge can be heightened further as the opportunities to share ideas and success stories can be all the more difficult through simple geographical distances. Often there just aren’t the nearby examples to point to. In such situations, when proposing ‘new’ ideas, people can more easily dismiss suggestions which aren’t the norm.
When beginning the Charles Burrell Centre journey we were encouraged to visit potentially similar projects elsewhere in the country. So off we went, a slightly cynical cabal of councillors from rural Norfolk on a train up to ‘Shine’ in Leeds to see how a former school could become a multi-purpose community hub. The following month, a different group went to Barnsley to see how the community shops programme was being delivered. Both visits gave a taste of what was possible. For some slightly cynical individuals it opened eyes and immediately changed the narrative from ‘this isn’t something we should be doing’ to ‘if they’re doing it, why can’t we?”. We joked on the train journey back about how maybe one day folk would come to Thetford to see how we were doing things.
Four years later, such an opportunity presented itself when Power to Change chose the Charles Burrell Centre to co-host their Norfolk and Suffolk ‘Power Up’ event run by Onion Collective.
The day began with a great game of ‘human bingo’ – attempting to work out who in the room had eaten a Peruvian guinea pig certainly broke down barriers and “are you the person that admires Churchill?” Juice power shots were on hand if the normal tea and coffee options weren’t cutting it for you. Of course, we were all truly energised when the two Marks gave introductions for both the Charles Burrell Centre and Power to Change. Putting a face to a name was certainly helpful when it came to Edward Walden who gave a quick overview of Twine as well.
Attendees then got to hear from two fantastic examples of communities working together to tackle rural isolation. Thetford is technically in Norfolk, but so far on the edge of the County it is almost in Suffolk. Despite being so relatively close, none of us had heard of the first speaker – Bob Webb from Station House. Bob was able to outline how he and others had turned a former Station House, dormant from 2005 to 2013 into a hub of life. No shortage of potential customers with this community asset – the footfall past its doors was huge as people accessed the trainline – and Bob was able to highlight how they worked to get people to step inside and access vital services like broadband. Sally Chicken then presented her community’s plans to develop Shotley Pier. The project highlighted how even in the more remote parts of the country, visionary ideas exist.
Following lunch, all attendees were able to share a problem that they were experiencing and collective brainpower was put to use to find possible solutions. From talking to other attendees I think it’s fair to say that this was probably the most beneficial aspect of the whole day.
Community work can often be a lonely affair. It’s long hours, often for little or no pay and it can be exhausting. So often you think – how can I be the only one experiencing this? It quickly became apparent when each table began to share ‘problems’ that in fact, others were experiencing the same or similar. The sheer knowledge that you’re not the only one was reassuring in itself. You instantly realise that in fact, you’re really not alone and when others recount stories that sound distinctly familiar – you’re keen to hear how they overcame them and what you might be able to learn. Possible solutions flowed with copious note taking.
I found the event to be reassuring and motivating. I suddenly found myself feeling somewhat less lonely as I soon realised that problems we had been experiencing were not in fact unique and that simply discussing the issues with like-minded individuals was beneficial. Find out about the latest Power Up! event in your area by signing up to the Power to Change newsletter.