Driving into Goldthorpe, at first glance the Barnsley village looks typical of any English community: a small high street runs through the centre, with rows of red-brick terrace houses leading off. But the dilapidation quickly becomes apparent: the Co-operative supermarket has shut down and lies empty; no banks remain; boarded-up houses and shops disfigure every street, like missing teeth.
The surroundings give a clue as to why Goldthorpe’s economy has been so decimated: the expansive green hills of the Dearne Valley ringing the village are former coalfields. When mining ceased, no jobs returned and many men never found work again. One electrical box on a street corner still bears some graffiti criticising Margaret Thatcher, and in April 2013, around 2,000 people crowded Goldthorpe’s streets to hold a mock funeral for the former prime minister, to coincide with the official ceremony in London.
But on two Goldthorpe streets, residents have decided to take matters into their own hands and try to combat the blight of empty properties. A board of local residents who live in the village and neighbouring Bolton-on-Dearne have purchased homes and are refurbishing them with local apprentices, with funds from Big Local, a scheme created by the Big Lottery Fund in partnership with UK charity, Local Trust.
Powers to bring empty houses into use ‘ignored’ Goldthorpe’s housing crisis differs from the overheated house price bubble of London and the south of England: the issue is of tenure and of private landlords leaving properties empty. Two decades ago, many landlords bought up multiple properties throughout Barnsley and after initially renting them out, left them to fall into disrepair. “They’re basically treating them as pensions,” says Mark Fisher, 50, chair of Goldthorpe and Bolton-on-Dearne Big Local and a veteran of community projects.
In their survey of 600 residents in and around Goldthorpe, the problem of absent landlords came up again and again. The group decided to purchase several homes, train apprentices to refurbish them, then let them via a contract with a local housing association. The aim was to provide, first, jobs and training for young people, then socially let family homes. “These properties will be there as assets for the community,” says April Fisher, a director of Goldthorpe and Bolton on Dearne Big Local, and Mark’s wife.
Finding the owners was difficult until Mark heard that a man had bought 57 properties across Barnsley, including Goldthorpe, at auction for £1m. After some negotiation and chasing, they persuaded him to sell them four properties.
Inside one of the homes there is a hub of activity. Young apprentices are coating the dark bricks with PVA glue and water, which will help plaster adhere to the walls. The end of terrace had lain empty for 14 years and was in such a state of disrepair that only the walls remained: doors, windows, stairs, floors and even the roof needed replacement. The next-door neighbour had put her house on the market because the rat problem caused by the vacant property was unbearable; on hearing the house was to be renovated, she decided to stay.
The idea behind Big Local’s approach is that giving money directly to communities will allow local people to find better solutions to local problems than top-down, one-size-fits-all national policymaking allows. It was launched just over three years ago as the Lottery’s largest ever community-led investment with 150 “forgotten pockets” of England each given at least £1m to turn ideas that directly benefit their local community into reality, after residents submitted plans. Goldthorpe and Bolton-on-Dearne’s plans got the go-ahead last summer. “It’s about deciding what local people, not agencies, want,” says April. “We saw the potential for doing bigger things.” Alongside Alister Shaw, a Local Trust employee who works as a Big Local rep, she works part-time as a support worker, having left her previous job to support the scheme.
“The community has had no future and nothing to look forward to,” Lily Dorritt, 68, another Goldthorpe Big Local director, says. “Everything’s closing. We’re determined to make this work.” The 68-year-old points out that the community has come together since the financial crash, with a community cinema now popular, and the village’s first ever Christmas market taking place last year.
The approach may not be translatable to every area, but the impact on Goldthorpe’s economy isn’t negligible: the skills the apprentices gain are key to reviving job hopes for young people, and working with a local construction company, Barnsley Community Build, means the investments stay in the community. Of the 48 apprentices, who work on rotations before completing their NVQ at a nearby training centre, several were excluded from school and had little hope of formal education. Working on projects in their own community and having their work visible in their local area has changed their behaviour and attitudes, says Steve Palmer, operations manager at BCB. “Every day they go home filthy but they’re made up. It’s giving jobs to lads who’d otherwise have nothing, and be on the streets.”
The residents’ board hopes to do more once this project has finished, and help other similar communities replicate the scheme. “It’s just giving people a nice home,” says April. “It should be a basic right.”
Dearne Community Housing Wins Nesta New Radicals Award
Barnsley Chronicle article 30th Sept 2016
On Thursday 10th November Dearne Community Housing completed their first house at 4 Wellington st Goldthorpe.
We had visitors from other Big Local areas,local councillors and Mr John Healey mp the shadow housing minister who has been a great supporter throughout.
We gave everybody a tour of No 4 and our next project 34 Albert road Goldthorpe.
This was followed by a presentation at the Factory by our chairman Mark Fisher and Steve Palmer from our L.T.O. Barnsley community build.
Community-Led housing scheme opens It’s doors
The transformation was incredible. In a house that had been empty for years, in rooms that had been filled with rubbish, overrun with rats and even without a floor in some cases, everything was freshly painted and fitted out, ready to let.
Touring the newly refurbished home, several people remarked that it was finished to a much higher standard than they were expecting. As one of the members of Goldthorpe and Bolton on Dearne Big Local explained, ‘We wanted to make a home where a family will want to stay and see their kids grow up in’.
The new carpets, blinds and ironwork had been purchased from local businesses. And all the work from start to finish had been completed by a local team, including 7 new apprentices taken on because of this project.
John Healey, Shadow Housing Minister and local MP attended the opening and recognised the unique results of the resident-led housing project:
‘It’s not just a renovation; it’s not just a project providing someone with a decent home; it’s giving young people skills and experience. 14 are now in full time employment. It’s a great example of what can be done – no one should underestimate the effort behind this!’
Affordable homes for rent, fewer empty homes standing derelict and more training and employment opportunities for the area. That was the vision of the residents of Goldthorpe and Bolton on Dearne Big Local near Barnsley, who wanted to use the area’s £1m of Big Local funding to tackle the biggest needs of their community.
In this former industrial area, unemployment is a key challenge, and many people have moved away. But with support from Big Local, it has become clear that the residents are the area’s greatest asset, and that they are able to solve the issues that matter most to their community.
The residents agreed to purchase and refurbish 4 empty properties, creating new construction apprenticeships in the process. The first home has now been completed and the impact so far is only the beginning:
To run a project of this kind, the Big Local residents had to set up a constituted non-profit organisation called ‘Dearne Community Housing’. All its directors are residents from Goldthorpe and Bolton on Dearne Big Local. Other challenges included the difficulty of tracking down a landlord to buy from and the discovery of the extent of the disrepair in the homes, one of which had been empty for 14 years. There’s more about the early days of the project in this blog.
As Mark, one of the Big Local residents and a director of Dearne Community Housing, says:
‘It has been a long and sometimes difficult journey to achieve our first milestone of having a property ready to rent but the rewards are amazing and far exceeded what we expected to achieve.’
Part of the group’s success lies in strong collaborations with Berneslai Homes, who will let the properties, and with Barnsley Community Build (BCB), who have completed the construction and offered the training opportunities.
Goldthorpe and Bolton on Dearne Big Local also had a new unexpected partner come forward after an article about the project in the Guardian attracted the attention of local company, Royston Glass. Royston Glass came forward to donate glass splashbacks for each home, train the BCB apprentices to install them and give them an educational tour of their factory. It’s clear that this project is sending positive ripple effects across the community, and attracting local pride.
The remaining three properties will soon be completed, and the income generated from the rent will be invested back into Dearne Community Housing to provide further good quality rented housing for the community, and further employment and skills opportunities.
It’s impressive – and it’s inspiring. People from other Big Local areas attended the opening, asking questions to see how they could adapt the same approach for the needs of their communities. The group have also been named as one of NESTA 50 New Radicals 2016, in recognition of their innovation and the way their project responds to some of the UK’s biggest social issues. In Goldthorpe and beyond, this project is starting a very exciting Big Local legacy.
Regional Community Fund backs Dearne Community Housing Ltd