Wednesday, 12 March 2014

All in it together? Yes, we are!

“They should …” Remarks starting like this, usually aimed at some public authority, are tempting when times are tough or things go wrong. But there’s a mirror image: “we could …” or, more directly, “we can …” and “we will …”.

Town clerk John Wright remarked, soon after arriving, on the amount of volunteering in Lyme and how it keeps the place buzzing. Peter Jeffs, coming similarly fresh to LymeNet, noted that in many ways the town “punches above its weight”.

Both men are from comparable towns nearby; by professional background they appreciate how communities tick. They noticed one reason why new residents in Lyme often comment along the lines of “there’s so much going on - I just can’t keep up.”

So I’ve decided to explore our communal “can do” attitude, and how volunteering drives it. From B Sharp to beach cleaners, Fossil Festival to football club, majorettes to millers; what goes on, who does it, why do people volunteer, what issues does it raise? A single monthly piece won’t do so, editorial patience allowing, I’ll develop the topic periodically. But where to begin?

It’s easy to think “volunteering”, then list the festivals, visitor attractions and leisure providers with which we’re familiar. I’ll get round to them, too. But they are, perhaps, icing on the community cake; other important voluntary work goes, quietly, into essentials: shelter and food.

Affordable housing for local young people is critical. For years, a small band comprising Keith Shaw, Wendy Davies, Nigel Marsh and Stan Williams has toiled as a research and pressure group under the LymeForward umbrella. They’ve sought and mapped possible sites, talking to owners, they’re regularly in touch with housing associations to encourage action, they keep pressure on the district council to give priority to Lyme people when allocating housing. 

They identified the possibility of housing association homes at Woodmead Halls, now being pursued by the town council and Raglan Housing. They also developed with Raglan a possible scheme near the medical centre, now under negotiation with the district council.

Emerging from the same LymeForward initiative, a Community Land Trust (CLT) has been established with Denis Yell as chairman, and Keith Jenkin, Rob McLaughlin and Brian Rattenbury as the other interim directors. A registered company accountable to the Lyme community, the trust has the power to seek sites within and outside the development boundary, and to negotiate with housing associations able to access funds for land purchase and construction. By retaining the freehold while not seeking profit, the CLT has greater influence than is the case with housing association homes built as part of a commercial development, such as that coming to Woodberry Down.

There’s no quick win with either of these efforts; land shortage, legal and bureaucratic obstacles, and commercial pressures combine to make progress extremely difficult. It’s vital work, for patient and determined volunteers who beaver away in the background.
While the housing challenge is of long-standing, the food bank responds to a more recent need. Our mayor’s charity, an initiative of LymeForward under the umbrella of Lyme Regis Development Trust, and administered from St Michael's Business Centre, the food bank exists “to help people unable, for a variety of reasons, to get good food for a short period”, says Audrey Vivian, who chairs the group.

Audrey has around her some 30 volunteers offering varied skills for different tasks, including collecting and storing food donations, packing and delivering boxes specific to each recipient, preparing publicity and information, handling phone calls and administration, fundraisingm even - a special feature being developed - offering cooking lessons. Everything’s done within the overriding rule of confidentiality.

Local churches and some businesses act as food donation points. The food bank uses a strict system of referral from approved organisations such as medical centres, churches, housing associations, schools and the Citizens Advice Bureau. Referrers liaise with the relevant services and monitor progress. The part played by all those is itself voluntary - beyond their normal business. For the food bank team, it’s another aspect that demands good communicating and coordinating.

The non-profit Community Lunches in the Baptist Church Hall also find people volunteering on top of their own businesses. Andy Crockett of Penny Black Café, assisted by “celebrity” sous-chef Councillor Terry O’Grady, prepares affordable hearty and healthy, freshly-cooked two-course meals, primarily for the more elderly and those who may not often get out of the house. 

Other volunteers serve and wash-up as well as providing transport where necessary. Andy also handles bookings and payments. Each month, 30 to 40 happy eaters enjoy a good British meal and the sociability that goes with it.

Now into their third year, Community Lunches were initiated by Ellen Austin and the LymeForward team. A hard-working, productive source of many of the town’s relatively unsung voluntary services, they anticipated the reality that communities must increasingly look after their own rather than rely on publicly-funded authorities. 

Examples like these show that home-grown voluntary effort can be precisely tailored to local circumstances, and outstanding in quality. To sustain it, even in such a good-hearted town, will require ever more shoulders to the wheel. That’s a challenge for each one of us. Many organisations are looking for more help - can you be one of those able to respond? 

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