On the way back
Boscombe has been going through a bad time, but enthusiasm from the community and help from the Town Hall is restoring its rightful reputation. Alan Illingworth reports.
Published in November ’10
There were simple dwellings on the heathland at Boscombe before Bournemouth was ever thought of. Indeed, Boscombe Cottage, which stood in grounds of sixteen acres and became the nucleus of the Boscombe Manor Estate, was built in 1801, nine years before Lewis Tregonwell started building a seaside house for his wife a mile or two along the coast to the west and so founded what was to become Bournemouth. Through most of the 19th century the two settlements grew independently of each other and it was not until 1876 that Boscombe became part of Bournemouth for administration purposes.
Like Bournemouth’s, Boscombe’s initial prosperity came from the gentry building large houses for themselves in a pleasant seaside location with supposedly health-giving properties. It benefited, too, from the growth of tourism brought about by greater mobility for all. Traces of the area’s history can easily be seen today in its substantial houses and it has more than its fair share of lovely architectural details.
Someone learning about Boscombe’s history having only known the area for the last few years might well ask, ‘So where did it all go wrong?’ For there can be no doubt that since about the early 1990s, Boscombe has been one of Bournemouth’s major problem areas. One must allow for the effects of exaggeration, myth and perception, but it did acquire a terrible reputation as a centre of drug use, with its associated crime and violence. A contributory factor was the type of housing in the area, namely converted or purpose-built high-density Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs) with a large privately rented market, particularly in the Boscombe West ward; about 40% of Bournemouth’s HMOs are located here. The standards of accommodation in theses bed-sits and flatlets are lower and the population turnover is relatively high, with low owner-occupier rates. The type and quality of the housing prevents people from settling and establishing a sustainable community. The area also has a higher than average number of rehabilitation centres and hostels.
Such a mess can only be cleaned up by a concentrated effort and a co-ordinated approach by everyone involved: the police, community groups, residents, traders and the local authority. Bournemouth BC has rightly taken the lead by establishing a regeneration programme for Boscombe, which works in partnership with the initiative called Bournmeouth 2026; nowhere does that initiative’s slogan, ‘Working together for a better future’, have more resonance than in Boscombe. Sally Coulson was employed at the beginning of the year to help transform the area, and has set up the Boscombe Regeneration Partnership, working with Dorset Police and other agencies. Its office in Roumelia Lane provides a focal point for the effort as well as a convenient and neutral meeting-place for groups who are also involved.
Ultimately, the aim is to ensure that there is a co-ordinated approach for the social and economic regeneration of Boscombe, working in partnership with all the elements in the community: residents, businesses and agencies. The key is that people should become involved in the shaping of the regeneration strategy so that it is based upon the wishes and aspirations of the community. The benefits will be a long-term commitment to addressing the issues that are at the root of Boscombe’s problems.
Regeneration began some years ago on the seafront, an area which perhaps did not suffer the same problems as the rest of Boscombe but which had been looking decidedly tired. The overall verdict is probably that the project has been a modified success. Certainly the new developments have brought in shops and restaurants, most of whom are pleased with the levels of trade. The sixty ‘beach pods’ (the 21st-century equivalent of beach huts) designed by Wayne Hemingway have been slow to sell, probably because the Council over-estimated what they could get from units which had only a forty-year lease, where toilets were shared and where staying overnight was not allowed. Also, they were put on the market at the time of a global recession The lack of revenue from the pods will not do much for the increase in costs of £1.8 million on the seafront project.
Which brings us to the famous surf reef, built out to sea at a cost of £3 million to create great surfing conditions and to turn Boscombe into a magnet for surfers, the Hawaii of the south coast. That was never going to happen, and some of the inflated claims made for the reef, both inside and outside the Town Hall, did the project no favours. All the reef can do is, when the surfing is good, to make it even better; what it cannot do is to create waves where none exist. Too many people have never mentioned this. Unfortunately, it has had more than its share of technical problems, to the point where the Council has withheld some of the money payable to the company which constructed the reef once it was shown to be working as it should. Whether it is fundamentally flawed or just needs tweaks is still a matter of conjecture and fierce argument.
Further inland, around Christchurch Road, the challenges are different, but are being vigorously addressed. Encouraged by Sally Coulson, the Boscombe Area Regeneration Group (BARG) has been established with the help of funding from the Council to act as an umbrella organisation to enable local organisations to speak with a unified voice and to co-ordinate their efforts. These organisations include everything from the Boscombe Traders Association to the Friends of Boscombe Chine Gardens – anyone who has an interest in the improvement of the area. BARG’s chairman, Andrew Lennox, sees it as an important part of the group’s role that it helps new businesses to move in, greater inward investment being one of the keys to economic regeneration.
Andrew is quick to point out the encouraging signs: a burgeoning cultural life as more artists move into the area, the thriving weekly market, the disappearance of some of the junk shops masquerading as antique shops at the Pokesdown end of Christchurch Road, the arrival of O2 Academy in the premises formerly occupied by the Opera House, which had attracted some undesirable elements. Andrew himself has helped by taking over the vital premises on the corner of Christchurch Road and St John’s Road, which form a western portal into Boscombe, and converting a rather unattractive furniture shop into a smart and appealing Thai tapas restaurant and bar.
Andrew speaks with justifiable enthusiasm of BARG’s plans. These include a free music festival in May of next year to embrace the Crescent, the pedestrian precinct in Christchurch Road, the seashore and Boscombe Chine Gardens. Then there is the re-branding of Boscombe and the drive to obtain positive publicity for the area, which will be launched early in the NewYear. And consultation is under way about a complete face-lift for the Crescent garden.
Also in place is Boscombe’s first arts trail: seven sculptures to be installed in Sea Road, linking the seafront to Christchurch Road. The work of Dorset artist Andy Kirkby, the sculptures are colourful and fun and reflect Boscombe’s history and its proximity to the sea.
Alongside these high-profile projects will be the day-to-day leg-work, particularly in the area of policing. Already the Boscombe Regeneration Partnership is working closely with landlords, and frequent random inspections are made of those HMOs which are known to be a problem. Drinking in public is being stamped on. Boscombe has figured largely in ‘Operation Dismantle’, the countywide crack-down on Class A drugs. The planners at the Town Hall can also do their bit by encouraging a greater mix of dwelling types and tenure around the district centre and Christchurch Road, in particular north of the Crescent. There is already a plan to restrict the further proliferation of HMOs in roads where there are currently associated problems.
No-one pretends it will be easy. Boscombe still has its fair share of empty or frankly seedy shops. Language schools still discourage their students from living in Boscombe. Boscombe still figures proportionately more than other areas in the town in incidents involving violence. But the community’s momentum for change, supported financially and in other ways by the Council, is strong. As Andrew Lennox of BARG says, ‘I believe that there is too much potential in this area for people to ignore it, and I hope that in five years BARG will have ceased to exist because there is no longer be any need for it.’