Sunday, 31 October 2010

Big Society, little town

2-4 High Street, Shefford
I've just got back from a weekend staying with a good friend of ours, Angie, who lives in a town called Shefford in Bedfordshire. It's a pleasant little community that still has a few pubs, several restaurants, a fire station, a bowls club, and a brewery. Some of these places are housed in fine historic buildings, many of which seem to be well looked after and inhabited by businesses or private residents. Coincidentally, it also resides in the Mid Bedfordshire constituency, the Member of Parliament for which is one Ms Nadine Dorries, as I pointed out in my previous post.

As we drove into Shefford at the weekend, Angie pointed out a cluster of attractive Grade 2 listed buildings, in which she's become rather interested in developing a small business. Having a rather useful knowledge of English Heritage databases, I delved into the history of 2-4 High Street a little further. Parts of the building date from the early 17th century, encased by a more obvious early to late Victorian structure. Peering inside, there are beautiful old beams, low ceilings and great space, all elements of the buildings character which give it so much potential for a variety of uses. 

Another view of the building, from the 'shop front' side
The significance of these old buildings- which nestle quite happily on a prominent junction at the end of the High Street - is that Angie wants them to be the home for a new venture called 'The Retreat', which she hopes will be the leading centre for yoga and complementary health in Bedfordshire. In Angie's words, “the Retreat is a beautiful and growing sanctuary offering an abundance of complementary treatments, classes and workshops, which are designed to feed mind, body and soul”. It will offer a range of different styles and disciplines of yoga for different abilities and ages, crystal healing, reiki, Oriental facial massage, Tai Chi, Indian head massage and pilates as well as relaxation, meditation, personal development workshops and coaching. Angie already runs successful workshops in her own home and strongly believes people achieve health and balance in their lives through developing their spiritual, emotional and physical health. 

The Retreat would be a one-stop shop for people wanting to explore ways in which to further their development. Although Angie would clearly run the place, she won't – and can't - take it all on herself. That wouldn't be the point, given the amount of services she would like to offer in the building. There would be a Fair Trade organic cafe and music rooms to use for local young people for example. Some of the rooms could be used as a small-scale business awayday venue, as an alternative to stuffy, modern and overpriced hotels, and a range of local voluntary organisations and societies could use the space for performance arts and similar activity.

Angie's keen on getting investment from a wide-range of sources – possibly local businesses or public sector organisations. There's clearly a potential for some sort of community interest company to be set up – Angie doesn't anticipate making millions from the venture – but it would provide a means of an income to her and others, as well as volunteering opportunities.

The real potential is in the role that The Retreat could play in becoming a hub of health and wellbeing, filling the void where other local services are likely to be cut back as a result of local government funding cuts. Shefford is growing – new, high quality housing is being built on old industrial land and there are around 6,000 people resident in the town, who Angie believes would be a ready client or customer base for the Retreat. And with good road links to other villages and towns in Mid-Bedfordshire, it could easily be a destination for others too.

Is this the Big Society in action? There's something about Angie's plan which isn't 'just another business' – it needs community support from many quarters for it work and, if it does work, would become a real asset to Shefford, which fundamentally is not an unappealing place by any means, but could do with some investment and creativity. What's more, the local unitary authority is not likely to be getting any funding windfalls any time soon so it really will fall to Shefford citizens to come up with the initiative and the capital to provide facilities for their own community.

I'm really excited about what The Retreat could become – not only because I want a close friend to have success in her venture, but because from a political angle I think it could serve as a barometer as to how the Big Society that we're all expected to be a part of can actually become a reality. Perhaps I also feel the need to give Government the benefit of the doubt, considering my less than positive thoughts on the subject a few weeks ago.

I've asked Angie to keep me posted with her project, and I hope that I can return to it on this blog when there's more to tell. And, when the time comes, I've even offered to dab a paintbrush here and there and help restore the place. It's early days, but I'm convinced that with the right people and a sound business case, it could help transform a little corner of Bedfordshire for the benefit of many people. There's still many hurdles to overcome – but with the right plan it could be saved from becoming yet another soulless supermarket.

1 comment:

Angela Samm said...

Paul..thank you so much for this. Helping me to bring my vision of what could be....'out there'. I am sharing this with close friends and others whom I feel may be inspired to put in some positive & constructive feedback, thoughts, inspiration & direction! I am not entirely sure where I am starting. I do think Town Council? I very much appreciate that there will be those that think this is an impossible task...however, I do have a belief in the impossible. As said by Goethe (thank you Mike x) "Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans - that the moment one definatley commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occured'"
So..I will be able to update you and others on progress so far...who knows, there could be 500 people out there who want to invest £1000 or 100 who want to invest £5000...along with grants to get the place done up! With love and thanks Paul...Angie x

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