Photos: Arvind Howarth
For lack of anything else to attach it to, I lock my bike to a bench in Maskelyne Park in Manor Farm, a part of Bristol with its own identity, although officially considered part of Horfield. Known locally as ‘the forgotten estate’. I’m here to meet with residents and members of the Manor Farm Community Hub (MFCH) to discuss their hard-won achievement of a community centre, following a battle spanning over a decade.
Manor Farm is a late 1940s housing estate, tucked away between Kellaway Avenue and Wellington Hill West in Horfield, and butting up against Southmead hospital – one of the reasons for its notorious parking issues.
The estate houses around 2,000 people and has a general store, a chip shop and another takeaway ‘currently not trading’. Some shops have been turned into residential units “removing the opportunity for local business or entrepreneurs in the area,” explains Caitriona Burke, who’s lived in Manor Farm for over a decade and is Building and Green Spaces Officer for MFCH. There are no bus routes along Manor Farm’s main artery Bishopthorpe Road, and there has never been a community centre here, despite a growing sense of community.
Vin, who’s lived here for 10 years, says living in Manor Farm is “not exactly ideal”. He lists what he sees as the problems in the area, including drug dealing, too many barking dogs, fly tipping by people who dont live locally and lacking local facilities. “Need I go on?” he says.
MFCH Chair Ann Bennett describes a diverse community with a broad range of needs: “Our residents include families of all sizes and composition, including single people as well as a high number of elderly and less mobile people, plus those who are re-housed here for rehabilitation from drugs and alcohol-related problems.”
You don’t need to look far to see that, despite a myriad of issues faced by residents, this place is not short on resilience and community spirit. It has a community garden, a book swap, a community pantry and holds seasonal events like easter egg hunts and sunflower growing competitions for locals to join in with.
It also has MFCH, a determined and organised community group who are jaded, but not deterred, by years of setbacks in their quest for a centre for Manor Farm. It formed in 2014 with the purpose of lobbying for a community centre to be included in a social housing project planned for the site of a former care home.
But before that, residents were already pushing for a centre. Previous councillors supported the idea and Bristol’s last mayor George Ferguson even committed to funding the hub, but it never materialised. “We’ve watched as other places get their community centres, year after year, thinking when’s our turn?” says Caitriona.
Anna George, Vice Chair of MFCH, has been campaigning for a community centre with the group for approaching a decade. She thinks that being officially considered part of Horfield has contributed to the neglect of Manor Farm: “Some parts of Horfield are quite wealthy, so all the stats are skewed…it would be better if we could be considered our own separate area.”
In 2018 MCFH finally persuaded the council to grant a community venue, winning the promise of two units worth of space in the development planned for the corner of Maskelyne and Bishopthorpe Roads. With building due to start this September, the site, currently just a patch of grass and a neighbouring children’s home (set to be demolished), won’t be complete for at least another two years. Nothing comes quick or easy to Manor Farm.
Two years ago, the group formed MFCH CIC (community interest company), and has been included in council planning meetings around the development. The plan is for 28 one, two and four-bedroom dwellings, a four-bedroom children’s home, and on the ground floor beneath two flats, the 175 square metre community centre. Dwellings will be 71% social rent and 29% shared ownership, according to planning documents.
In the new community centre there’ll be a cafe and activities for all ages, from bingo to baby groups. It will host classes and the activities currently taking place in the park or residents’ homes – MFCH meetings, the book swap, and the pantry – as well as space for councillors and police to hold surgeries. There will be access to the centre from Maskelyne Park, which will be the setting for outdoor events.
Funding still needs to be found for the contents of the building and equipment, including a partition wall, and ideally the centre will become self-sustaining. “What people don’t understand is that they’re granting us an empty husk. It will need to be run,” explains Caitriona. MFCH CIC are keenly awaiting the start of a process of Community Asset Transfer, where they will apply to manage the space, but no start date has been announced yet.
Swings and roundabouts
Tucked away behind houses is Manor Farm’s Maskelyne Park, made up of a small green space and play area, a site of much contention. The green space had its multi-use gaming area (MUGA) demolished in 2017 when a neighbour took issue with noise and ‘anti-social behaviour’, and obtained a court order to have the equipment removed; he has since moved out of the area.
Where the MUGA used to be is now a picnic table, offered as “compensation” from the council “to try and offset the anger in the community” following the demolition, Anna explains. The sparse little park has also had its ‘big kid’ swings cut down for safety reasons.
Caitriona is exasperated: “The community is overlooked. My son was born here and has been let down by Bristol City Council for 11 years. There have been promises in relation to improved facilities for the youth of Manor Farm – these have not come to fruition…there is no real action by any of the parties.”
Another hot topic is proposed developments for nine residential units on Tilling Road, and nine small affordable ‘gap homes’ homes on Bell Close, on disused garage plots, which are currently under consultation and many residents object to. ”The feeling is the area is being squeezed to benefit developers rather than community, resulting in a built environment that has removed opportunity for the wellbeing of its residents,” Caitriona says.
‘Right to be cynical‘
Could Bristol’s recent election results help Manor Farm? I spoke with Horfield’s new Labour councillors Tom Renhard and Philippa Hulme, who are well aware of Manor Farm’s troubles, and keen to help turn the tide of neglect.
The councillors are already in MFCH’s good books because they recently supported the group to apply for Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) funding to replace the removed swings in Maskelyne Park, and hopefully provide more play equipment. However, the results of the bid will not be known until September, meaning at least another summer with limited local play facilities.
The councillors support the planned community centre: “It is a win for the community. They should be very proud,” says Renhard, who met me on a sunny evening in Maskelyne Park.
I mention some residents are concerned that pre-election interest in Manor Farm may die down now the election is won. “Residents are right to be cynical,” he says. “Politicians come along at election time and make promises, and how much do you see them afterwards? Me and Philippa don’t want to be those politicians who you don’t see for three years and then we’re back like ‘Hi, vote for us again! It’s about building that two-way communication.”
To concerned residents, Hulme offers: “We’re very determined to absolutely be active and local and really support the local community.” But she says councillors often have their hands tied: “There’s so much that the mayor and councillors would love to do, but it can’t all happen because of the funding cuts from the government.”
The councillors hope to regain the community’s trust. Renhard says “We want to make sure we are visible and active. That will include doorknocking regularly over the years, doing street surgeries and coming out and talking to residents.”
I meet another resident, Roxy, for a chat on a bench by the sweet peas she grew in the community garden. Although she welcomes the granting of the community centre, she is concerned that not the whole community is involved in plans for the centre. “The key for me is engagement,” she tells me. “I could tell you what I’d use the community centre for, but it’s not about me, it’s about what everyone wants.”
Caitriona says the space is for everyone: “Manor Farm is a diverse community and the hub will welcome that diversity within the space, to enable all of its people’s stories to be celebrated and supported.”
A few days ago, tensions rose again in Manor Farm, when residents found a torn-up council notice in the play area, notifying of the removal of the swing frames. The notice met with outrage from residents: “How long does Manor Farm have to wait? Once more a generation of children on Manor Farm deprived” reads one online comment.
It won’t be easy for the councillors to gain the trust of Manor Farm, but supporting the sought-after community space into being is a good place to start. And for the residents that have worked so hard for so long for it, when they eventually set foot in their community centre after all these years, that will indeed be a massive win.