Chopwell Regeneration Group (CRG)
by Barry Knight
The five applicants for the Janette Kirton-Darling Memorial Prize have so far focused on what local people can do to solve specific problems in our society – improving the environment, supporting people with mental health issues, addressing institutional racism, supporting migrants, and pressing for a living wage.
The sixth applicant, Chopwell Regeneration Group (CRG), takes a different approach in that it focuses on improving the lives of everyone who lives in a former mining village. Following decades of decline, CRG was formed by local people in 2017 to improve the lives of residents by providing cultural, employability, and health & wellbeing programmes.
A community in crisis
Chopwell, a village in rural west Gateshead, changed forever in 1966 when the coal mine closed and the economic basis of the area collapsed. There are still few employment opportunities and transport links are poor. According to the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation of 2019, the northern part of the village was in the lowest 4 per cent for employment and worst 6 per cent for the impact of low income on children.
Signs of neglect are everywhere, with one-third of shops on the main street boarded up. The village suffers significant crime, mental health, drug, alcohol and domestic violence issues. The combined effects of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis mean that many families find it difficult to get enough to eat.
The community response
Following the abandonment of area regeneration programmes by the Coalition government as part of its austerity policies from 2010 onwards, little outside investment has been available. This means that local people have to do it for themselves or not at all.
In 2017, a group of residents set up Chopwell Regeneration Group (CRG). Over the summer, more than 200 residents attended consultation events that formed the basis of the long-term aims of the group. There have been quarterly public meetings ever since in which local people discuss their concerns.
In 2019, CRG registered as a charity. Since then, the organisation has grown, but the emphasis on local people working with local people has remained a top priority. Community engagement is central, and trustees, volunteers and all but one of the five staff are residents of the village.
Initial efforts included establishing a community allotment and orchard, planting trees, improving signage, putting up Christmas lights, running events such as makers markets, and a running a ‘Brighten up Chopwell campaign’.
Following these early successes, the ambition of the group grew. The goal was to convert Chopwell’s former Lloyds Bank into an enterprise and welfare centre at a cost of £250,000. The idea was to bring a much-loved but derelict building on the main street back into use. The idea that the centre would function as a place to meet, a home for activities and services, and a venue where people’s views are listened to so that they could help to shape the future of the village.
The conversion was done in 2020 and ‘The Bank’, as it is known, opened in March 2022. This was the result of a major fundraising effort including sponsored walks by more than 100 residents and contributions from Gateshead Council.
While The Bank is for everyone, it also provides support for the most vulnerable members of the community in the most sensitive, friendly and welcoming way possible. The work at The Bank addresses some of the most urgent challenges facing Chopwell: food poverty and nutrition, mental health, social and cultural life, and deprivation. Some of The Bank’s facilities, which are designed to offer something for all age groups, include:
- A ‘pay what you can’ cafe and community market using surplus ‘food waste’ from supermarkets and locally produced food
- A vibrant programme of social, cultural and learning activities to engage isolated residents and create opportunities for new friendships, including craft activities and board games for people who are at home during the day
- A monthly ‘memory café’ run in conjunction with local doctors’ surgeries to support people with dementia and their family and friends
- Employability and skills training and work placements, both in the kitchen and front of house
- Children’s computer coding sessions for 7 to 11 year-olds (with fresh smoothies and pizza), and catering training to engage young people and enhance their long-term employability skills
- Workspaces for start-ups
A warm welcome
While it is early days, The Bank has been well received by residents. On average, 450 people visit every week, including those most acutely experiencing social isolation and food poverty. People say, ‘I just like being here’ and they keep coming back. They talk about increased confidence, developing a ‘can-do’ attitude following the loneliness of lockdown, and feeling more positive about where they live and the opportunities around them.
A hub for development
The Bank is a focus for economic and social development. Having created five jobs within CRG, the Group had two work placement staff via the Department of Work and Pensions who had been unemployed for many years. After the 8-week placements they both continued volunteering at the Bank. One has since found employment at a local café, while the other continues to volunteer and to grow in confidence and skills, receiving further training, a qualification and is taking more responsibility in the running of the kitchen alongside the chef.
There are a further 16 regular volunteers (5 of whom are young people aged 16-18) who are keen to help in the café at busy times and say that volunteering is of huge value to them for reasons including loneliness, learning new skills, work experience, building confidence and ‘being part of something’.
The upstairs rooms of The Bank are rented out to local businesses or social enterprises, all of which are run by local people who were either previously working from home or are new start-ups.
The whole community
The idea of ‘including everyone’ is central to the work. Great efforts are made to reach out to everyone in the village by delivering a quarterly newsletter to every house and business, using The Bank’s very large windows to post information about activities and advertising upcoming events on behalf of other groups. The newsletters are bright and cheerful, with positive stories. The Facebook page is very active, with around 1,800 members and the website is frequently updated.
All the messages are designed to encourage residents to get involved. There are volunteering opportunities to suit everyone – painting The Bank, running craft sessions, joining in sponsored walks, helping in the café, delivering food parcels, running restaurant evenings and more.
The Chopwell Regeneration Group shows what can be done to build the assets, capacities and trust in a community through dedicated community activism. While there is still a long way to go to regenerate the economy of the village, progress in the past five years has been remarkable.
Written by Barry Knight, based on material provided by Chopwell Regeneration Group
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