NEWS: UK’s community organisations get a sneak peak of Witton Lakes Eco Hub as energy saving example

Words & pics by Ed King

Delegates from the Locality Convention in Birmingham have been getting a sneak peak at the Eco Hub in Witton Lakes this week, as a national example of energy saving construction and community focused regeneration.

On Wednesday 17 November the first open viewing was held of the renovated Park Keepers House at Witton Lakes, which has had over £1m invested to turn it into a new ‘Eco Hub’ – in a project led by Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) after an asset transfer from Birmingham City Council.

A special bus brought representatives in from the conference for a guided tour, before the team behind the development presented the concept and construction of the Eco Hub – with an open Q&A about how to apply similar models to projects nationwide.

Attended by community organisations from across the country, the Locality Convention is the largest community sector event in the year – with delegates looking for inspiration for new concepts, campaigns, and designs.

Anoushka Deighton from the Architectural Heritage Fund told Erdington Local: “I thought it was a really inspirational vision of what you can do when you let a community organisation take over a disused building and turn it into something for the whole community.

“The way they really thought about the construction and made sure that was environmentally friendly was very positive, alongside getting input from local people and using their knowledge.”

Afzal Hussain, WLCA Chief Officer, said: “Today we wanted to showcase what local communities can do practically, on the ground, for themselves, which will make an impact to address the climate crisis – but also really helps people with everyday costs, the costs of living.

“To make the kind of big impact we need both the pledges from governments, and we need things on the ground very practically.

“That’s how change happens, and we think, equally, grass roots action can and will play a huge role in addressing the climate challenges – but also looking at positive and creative ways of bringing people together.

“So, it (environmental awareness) becomes something you do, something you enjoy with your family and friends and have fun doing it. Look at the surroundings here (Witton Lakes), it’s beautiful.

“The delegates are primarily from organisations like WLCA; they are community associations and community trusts, some agencies as well – there are some stakeholders from the combined authority, so it’s important they see this.

“The community organisations will recognise the challenges of managing assets and community buildings, but in many ways they’ve come here because they want to know that it can be done. “

An asset transfer from Birmingham City Council to Witton Lodge Community Association, the transformation of the 100 year old Park Keepers House at Witton Lakes has been designed by Axis Design Architects – using energy saving techniques and materials to reduce its carbon foot print during both the construction and maintenance.

A Wolverhampton based firm, Axis Design Architects have been spearheading ecologically focused construction across the West Midlands – working with local councils and housing associations.

Rob Annable, Director of Axis Design Architects, explained what the driving force behind the Witton Lakes Eco Hub project was: “Sustainability, and the discussion about services and the resources the building will provide in relation to ecology and health and wellbeing.

“So, the building is dubbed the ‘eco hub’ but not just because of architectural construction issues but also because it will be connected to health and wellbeing, and ecology based activities with the landscape here in the park. So, it’s all those topics combined.

“You could look at it as a benchmark, but I would be fairly humble about that in terms of trying to set a realistic benchmark with what’s possible with funding support from an organisation like Witton Lodge Community Association.

“We haven’t tried to construct or build an experimental project that spends a lot of money on brand new, cutting edge technology – the products, the materials, and operational benefits of this project are as much about trying to set a bar that is achievable for other clients, contractors, and the building sector generally.”

Set to open before the end of the year, the Witton Lakes Eco Hub will run a programme of community and ecologically focused activity – building on the work already being done with the Velvet Community Orchard and other community outreach projects from WLCA.

Once finished, the Eco Hub will help local residents find ways to ‘enhance and encourage the potential for environmentally sustainable lifestyles,’ whilst also acting as a social centre.

On the WLCA website, it further states the Eco Hub will ‘also include the creation of a hydro-power facility on the lakes, sustainable food growing, healthy eating, environmental management responsibility and a range of linked, sustainable living options addressed through community engagement, advice, and practical projects.’

Rob Annable added: “We call it ‘the eco hub’, but for me the reason it’s an ‘eco hub’ is for that long list of landscape and environmental based activities being programmed here.

“Yes, the architecture and the construction seek to reduce carbon emissions, through embodied carbon and operational carbon, but its primary benefit will be health and wellbeing issues around environment, landscape, and ecology.”

For more on the Eco Hub from Witton Lodge Community Association visit www.wittonlodge.org.uk/our-projects/environmental-projects/our-environmental-projects

For more on Axis Designs Architects visit www.axisdesignarchitects.com

NEWS: Housing boost for Erdington as Witton Lodge CIC becomes official Registered Provider

Words by Steve Sharma / Pic of refurbishment supplied by WLCA

Hundreds more homes could now be refurbished and built across Erdington, as Witton Lodge Community Interest Company (WLCIC) has successfully become a Registered Provider.

The official status will allow the Perry Common based WLCIC to apply for funding to refurbish derelict properties, as well as to build new affordable and social housing – helping to address the city’s ongoing housing crisis.

According to the Birmingham City Council, Birmingham is facing a population increase of around 156,000 people by 2031 – leaving a housing shortage of nearly 90,000 homes.

Gareth Hopkins, Homes and Assets Manager for Witton Lodge, said: “Achieving Registered Provider status enables Witton Lodge CIC to progress its housing development aspirations.

“There are currently around 17,000 housing applicants on Birmingham City Council’s waiting list (May 2021) and over 9,000 empty properties across the city (August 2019)

“Homes England (the national government agency for development and regulation of affordable housing) has a national funding pot to address the housing shortage.

“By becoming a Registered Provider we can now apply directly for funding to develop and manage properties.

“We can now pursue the refurbishment of even more empty properties, those which have become a blight on local communities and can cause issues such as anti-social behaviour.”

Before/after refurbishment by WLCIC

Witton Lodge Community Interest Company was formed in 2015 as a subsidiary of Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) to progress housing and community asset development goals.

WLCA is a charity with a successful track record of community-led housing and capital asset development across North Birmingham – established by local residents in 1994, in response to plans to demolish the Perry Common estate.

Since then, WLCA have built and manage 187 properties, as well as developing other community assets such Perry Common Community Hall and Perry Common Library.

The Association organises and delivers a rolling programme of community support and engagement activities – tackling issues from employment and digital poverty to health and wellbeing, many of which became crucial lifelines during lockdowns.

WLCA are also currently running special employment support services from Perry Common Library as part of the Ignite Aspirations initiative, to help people over 29 get back to work after Covid.

Chief Officer, Afzal Hussain, said: “We’re delighted that Witton Lodge CIC has achieved Registered Provider status. The team and Board have worked hard to get us to this stage, however, in many ways the real work starts now as we know there is huge demand for good quality, affordable homes.

“Another important feature is the ‘community-led’ element, where we are able demonstrate that there is a different model to developing new housing, which works with the grain of local communities.

“The work of the CIC will also complement the charitable activities of the Association which provides health, employment and community support services to hundreds of local residents.”

For more on Witton Lodge Community Association visit wwwwittonlodge.org.uk

FEATURE: “I don’t think I would have survived the lockdown without my volunteering,” – Erdington local woman’s cry for more community support

Words by Steve Sharma / Pics courtesy of Erdington Local Community Response

A local woman helping an Erdington community support group to deliver food and essential supplies, and safeguard elderly and vulnerable residents, says volunteering has saved her life.

Donna Tone said her experience working alongside Mutual Aid Group, Erdington Local Community Response, has helped her to survive the lockdown.

At the start of Volunteers Week (June 1-7) the primary school worker is now urging others to follow her example and reap the ‘amazing’ benefits it brings.

“Should people volunteer? Absolutely,” she said. “Because you are not only doing good for others but for yourself too. My self-esteem and confidence have increased massively since I started volunteering and I’ve made some amazing friends and met some lovely people.e 

“At the beginning of the lockdown I felt very isolated with my family living far away from me – but my volunteering has changed that. I now feel uplifted as a person. I don’t think I would have survived the lockdown without my volunteering – it saved me.” 

Donna, who has spent the last three months helping to pack and distribute food parcels from a base in Ladywood, points to the collective efforts and unity of those working to support those in need.

“It’s like your own little community,” she said.

“One minute you’ve got these strangers standing behind you, the next minute they’re becoming your friends. 

“You just start talking to people and form connections, everyone is there to help each other, they are invested in the collective effort. Everyone is united.” 

Erdington Local Community Response was founded by local woman Jo Bull. It has been delivering hundreds of food parcels every week to homes across the district and supporting people through befriending services and via social media with information and resources shared on its Facebook page.

David Owen, who co-ordinates activity for the group, said the support it has received has been ‘eye-watering’ but with certain lockdown measures now being eased and people returning to their day jobs, volunteers are needed to sustain the help that’s being delivered to people.

“The take up of volunteers in Erdington has been immense with over 70 people giving up their time to pack, shop and deliver for those in need,” he said.

“But as these people return to work, we need a new wave of volunteers to get us through the weeks and months ahead. 

“So, if anyone out there, who lives in the North Birmingham area, can spare some time to help our group over the coming weeks we’d really love to hear from them. Please email me at: erdingtoncv19@gmail.com” 

Erdington Local Community Response is a member of the Erdington COVID19 Taskforce – a network of local community organisations and individuals working together to support the district’s vulnerable, isolated and at risk during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Taskforce is facilitated by Witton Lodge Community Association. Chief Officer, Afzal Hussain, commented: “Volunteers are the lifeblood of organisations like ours and their efforts across the constituency in support of organisations like Erdington Local Community Response has been truly inspiring. 

“We have also benefited from their incredible and selfless work in getting food parcels packed and delivered to the most vulnerable members of our community during the lockdown.

“Without their support a lot of the work that has been achieved would not have been possible. We are all very grateful to every single one of our amazing volunteers.”

To visit the Erdington Local Community Response (to COVID-19) Facebook group, where you ask for help and support during the coronavirus crisis – or offer your services as a volunteer, visit www.facebook.com/groups/625073991557017

A directory of all Erdington COVID19 Taskforce organisations can be found by visiting: www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19-local-support

Volunteers’ Week runs across the UK from 1st to 7th June – for more information, visit www.volunteersweek.org