‘It’s like an old-fashioned village now!’
Heatherlands has come a long way since the bad old days of Tricketts Cross in the 1970s. Colin Trueman visited it and found a shining example of British community spirit at its best.
Published in August ’09
‘What’s in a name?’ asks Juliet plaintively from her balcony, with Romeo listening from below. ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…’ But if that name conjures up images of crime, violence, anti-social behaviour, vandalism and arson, then the name is all too important. Thirty years ago, Tricketts Cross, an estate on the edge of Ferndown, had a reputation for all these things, and years of deteriorating behaviour seemed to be sending it into a downward spiral. But the residents decided that they had had enough, and over the last ten years the estate has been transformed – a transformation symbolised by the change of name from Tricketts Cross to Heatherlands. The change brought a few objections, including some from the original Trickett family; most of the objections, however, came from people far away from the estate – indeed, one or two came from the USA. But the new name has stuck.
Tricketts Cross was a post-war council estate which was extended with private housing in the 1960s and 1970s. To this day it is a mixture of privately owned properties, housing association house and flats and private-sector rented properties. It was planned with that lack of imagination which we have come to associate with that era: a high density estate with few facilities for the residents. Almost inevitably, it slid into a decline; a report in Dorset Life in 2003 described it at its nadir a few years previously: ‘Regular vandalism saw gates and fences kicked in, intimidation and stone-throwing were commonplace, young children were roaming the streets late at night and old cars were being raced around the estate.’
All that has changed. Julian Humphries, Community Beat Officer on the estate for the last eight years, has seen it at its worst and is delighted by the turnaround. ‘You don’t see the boarded-up houses and abandoned cars that you saw six or seven years ago – that’s a thing of the distant past. There are far fewer heath fires and there’s far less graffiti. We have a lower level of crime now than neighbouring areas, some of which are much more prosperous. There’s now a real sense of community here, and people look out for each other. It’s like an old-fashioned village now.’
I had seen the unpleasant photographs in the papers and read all the horror stories, so I went to Heatherlands to see for myself whether reports of its re-birth had been exaggerated. I met Julian Humphries at the Heatherlands Centre – and here was my first surprise. The previous report in Dorset Life had commented that the Centre had been a particular target for vandalism and intimidation and wondered why vandals so often attacked the facilities provided for their benefit; but the building I saw was in as good a state as any of its type and purpose in Dorset.
Julian is proud of it. ‘We’ve had a lot done to it. There have been improvements to the main hall, we’ve had carpets put in everywhere, the paint has been refreshed, the kitchen has been completely re-done, we’ve got new lights. Best of all, we’ve had a lot of the breeze blocks plastered over. The place used to look like a barn, but my colleague Stewart Gates brought in a team of young men from the Bournemouth and Poole College trades department and they did the plastering work as a training exercise, so there were no labour costs and East Dorset DC provided the materials. They’ve done it very skilfully, so now the place has a much less agricultural feel about it!’
This is just as well, because the Heatherlands Centre is a very important place for this community. It is astonishingly busy. I went there on a Tuesday morning and was welcomed not only by Julian but by about twenty small children aged between 3 and 4½: this was the Hopscotch Preschool, for the estate’s youngest residents. ‘For some of these little souls, it’s the only structure they get,’ said Julian. In a different room was a Parenting Skills course, attended by a dozen or so parents from the estate: that morning they were focussing on ‘Effective Commands’ and how parents can influence their children’s behaviour by what they say and how they say it. On other mornings the centre is used by MENCAP and Age Concern; in the evenings it is used by the Youth Club, the Dance Class and the Jitsu Club.
The Jitsu Club has been going for nine years now. Former Ferndown mayor Lesley Dedman has seen it grow. ‘It’s an example of how to get young people to use their energy in a positive and life-enhancing way,’ she enthuses. ‘There are kids in the Jitsu Club who go around with pride at their achievement instead of drifting aimlessly and getting into trouble.’ In 2007 she gave her first ever Mayor’s Award to its founder John Hanrahan, an ex-Marine who runs a tight ship and engenders immense respect from a potentially difficult crew. His work has been recognised from further afield than Ferndown: the same year, the Jitsu Club was nominated for the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, and John went to Buckingham Palace with Sensei Dave Williams to meet HM The Queen. More recently, John was voted Daily Echo ‘Great Citizen’ of 2009, not only for his work at the club but also as co-ordinator of Neighbourhood Watch, helper with the PTA and organiser of countless events for young people.
Tuesday mornings at the Heatherlands Centre is also the drop-in time for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Anyone with any sort of problem can call in without making an appointment: debt, housing, employment, consumer issues or even filling in forms – and there can be few of us who have not scratched our heads when confronted with some of the bureaucratic paperwork sent to us by central or local government.
So the Heatherlands Centre is certainly well used – and nowadays it looks the part. It is treated with respect by the residents. There was one new piece of graffiti on the back wall the day I visited, but Julian was confident that he would very soon get to hear who was responsible and that it would shortly disappear.
‘There’s a pride in the place these days: the whole estate looks smarter and feels smarter. That’s partly due to Ferndown TC’s Lengthsman, Ralph Haydon, who spends a day a week at Heatherlands does those small jobs which take ages for a district council to get round to approving – say, getting rid of some brambles or repairing a fallen-down fence or removing a dead fridge left by fly-tippers.’
Julian is also full of praise for the PACT panel. PACT stands for Partners and Communities Together, which sounds like one of those very worthy committees which talks a lot but never gets anything done. Nothing could be further from the truth at Heatherlands: this panel has representatives from a whole crop of agencies, chaired by the redoubtable Maureen Godfrey, another former Ferndown mayor and not one to stand any time-wasting.
Julian likes the way they prioritise. ‘I compare it to jobs around the house: there are always a hundred things to do, but you can’t do all of them, so you choose the most important two or three. This is how we got the re-surfacing of Humber Road done. There were potholes six inches deep there, but when the panel’s attention was drawn to it, it was re-surfaced soon afterwards. So people know that what they say can make a difference which they can actually see, and it gives a lift to the whole place.’
Something else which has given a lift to the place is the advent of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order. ASBOs have received much bad publicity, largely because many early ones were worded with insufficient care. In 2004 three of the estate’s most active troublemakers were given ASBOs restricting them from certain areas at certain times, and it changed the whole complexion of the place: the ‘untouchables’ were now under control.
‘The ASBO gives a power of arrest and, whatever people may say, going through the custodial process isn’t pleasant, ‘ says Julian. ‘People may brag about it and the public perception may be that it’s ‘softly-softly’, but it really isn’t. It can ruin your chances for employment and give you a criminal record, and the young people on the estate have seen that now.’
Having been on the estate for so many years, Julian is a familiar figure at Heatherlands – rather like the old-fashioned ‘bobby on the beat’ from the days of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’. And like George Dixon, he is happy in his work: he can see things getting better all the time.
Maureen Godfrey sums it up. ‘Since 2003, the estate hasn’t grown in size, but it’s grown in stature: the residents have a confidence which wasn’t there before – the old fears have been dissipated. The stigma which it once had really isn’t there any more. I think everyone nowadays sees Heatherlands as part of Ferndown – which it is.’