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Business making Big Society Norfolk-style

PUBLISHED: 17:00 12 November 2011

The Grapes Hill Community Project was among those aided by Norfolk ProHelp members

The Grapes Hill Community Project was among those aided by Norfolk ProHelp members

Archant 2010

Everybody has heard of the Big Society, but few people may understand what it really means.

But at meeting in Hethersett last week, members of Norfolk ProHelp were learning exactly how companies were making a real difference to grassroots community projects, by giving up their time to help turn goals and dreams into reality.

Amid tough economic conditions and an unprecedented squeeze on public spending, Britain’s communities are already pulling together to make ends meet.

Prime Minister David Cameron, wants us all to be part of his ‘Big Society’ – a country in which neighbourhoods, charities and the private sector join forces for the common good. And services that were once publicly funded are being forced to come up with new ways of working in the face of harsh cutbacks.

But in Norfolk, generous businesses have been creating their own ‘Big Society’ for years: teaming up with hundreds of community and voluntary groups across the county and offering free support.

GRAPES HILL COMMUNITY GARDEN, Norwich

A local group of residents formed Grapes Hill Community Garden Group to convert a redundant car park into an oasis of calm in Norwich city centre.

The group applied for a Big Lottery Fund Grant and drafted in Norfolk ProHelp members A Squared Architects to finalise the garden design and construction details and Andrew Morton Associates Quantity Surveyors to assist with the cost estimate for funding, obtaining tenders and managing the cost.

Andrew Morton Associates provided 90 hours of pro bono work.

Law firm Birketts provided free professional advice to the charity in connection with the lease that was granted by Norwich City Council.

Mark Ashurst, of A Squared Architects, said: “As a resident of Norwich, this was a fantastic opportunity to be involved in the design and regeneration of an urban space and provide a new, unique garden for the neighbourhood to enjoy and participate in.”

Quantity surveyor James Cleaver said: “Grapes Hill Community Garden transformed this area of tarmac into a vibrant public space with real ownership for local residents. We are always keen to give something back to the community and when we were approached by ProHelp we were thrilled to be involved in such a project.”

Community group treasurer Peter Ellington said: “The garden has transformed the area into an oasis attracting passers-by and local residents to relax, partake in community gardening or to hire a raised bed for gardening. The project has been successful in developing a pride and community spirit in the local area.”

He added: “We are extremely grateful to all our cash sponsors, principally the Big Lottery Community Spaces, Groundworks UK and the Greater Norwich Development Partnership; and we greatly appreciate the value that was received in professional help from ProHelp members: specifically Birketts LLP, A Squared Architects and Andrew Morton Associates.”

Professional firms such as surveyors, architects, PR experts, lawyers and accountants commit themselves to thousands of pounds worth of pro bono advice and support for community projects every year, through Norfolk ProHelp.

Norfolk has in recent years become the biggest and busiest panel in the national ProHelp network and supported 61 organisations in the year to June 30, 2011, with pro-bono work worth £228,000. It is sponsored by Norwich-based NPS Group.

Last Friday’s meeting heard an update on projects ranging from getting a community garden off the ground in Norwich, helping develop a new village hall at Weston Longville, and equipping youngster with the skills they need to succeed in the world of retail and a partnership with Farrows Design Consultants, City College Norwich, and Chapelfield Shopping to create Ego, part of a Retail Skills Academy, where budding retailers get the chance to hone their skills in a real-life environment selling vintage clothing.

Lynda Osborne, right, who administers Norfolk ProHelp’s day-to-day activities, said: “I am delighted that Norfolk firms still manage to find the time and energy to continue to support ProHelp, notwithstanding the difficult economic conditions. We have a very loyal and generous panel of firms that have people who are committed to using their expertise to help with community projects.

WESTON LONGVILLE VILLAGE HALL

A community partnership between the three Broadland villages of Weston Longville, Morton on the Hill and Attlebridge is being supported by Norfolk ProHelp.

The Three Parishes Project will provide a new community building and sports facilities to be shared by people in the local area, based around Weston Longville Village Hall.

The project gained momentum once Norwich-based architects Chaplin Farrant were called in by Norfolk ProHelp.

The firm provided pro bono support in the early stages of the project when it investigated and reported on the options available to the parishes – either to refurbish an existing structure, built in 1949, or to replace with a new structure. The parish council decided that a new build was the preferred option.

Chaplin Farrant subsequently secured planning permission and provided input for the applications to funders, work which has allowed the project to proceed. It is expected to be completed by September 2012.

The scheme has been awarded £300,000 by the Veolia Environmental Trust, one of four grants awarded to projects throughout the UK as part of its Veolia Cre8 Funding Challenge.

Broadland District Council is also a key supporter and has committed £10,000 towards the project.

“We lives in times where neighbourhoods are being expected to ‘take over’ what were once public services and community assets – and these people will need more help than ever from Norfolk ProHelp’s volunteer army of professionals. I firmly believe that we we’ve been creating our own ‘Big Society’ here in Norfolk before it was ever put on the political agenda. Our professionals really care about local communities and provide truly invaluable support.”

Ms Osborne added: “ProHelp is a remarkably successful scheme with so many advantages. It provides a first-class quality service that benefits the participating business, its employees and the wider community – but we always need more firms to join our volunteers.”

Norfolk ProHelp is currently assisting a local campaign to breathe new life into a Norwich day centre. The Friends of the Silver Rooms are taking over and refurbishing the building in Silver Road, in order to run it as a community-wide facility.

They are being given free professional help by firms including Ingleton Wood (acting as lead consultants), John Plummer Partnership, Cyril Sweett, P J Cozens, Arnolds and Brown & Co.

Norfolk ProHelp is part of the national ProHelp campaign, which was established in 1989 by Business in the Community. The Norfolk panel began in 1993 and now comprises 43 professional firms, ranging from small local businesses to those with national and even global operations. It is currently trying to recruit more web design, marketing and PR firms.

Nationally, ProHelp has this year supported 593 community groups and voluntary organisations with more than £1.3m worth of free professional advice and expertise.

Last week was National Pro Bono Week, which highlights the scale, scope and impact of pro bono work across the professions nationally.

The business breakfast at the Park Farm Hotel, Hethersett, last week launched Pro Bono Week and showcased the work of Norfolk ProHelp as a selection of panel members give short presentations on local projects they have undertaken.

Norfolk ProHelp chairman David Thompson, of LSI Architects, said: “In a challenging economic climate, community groups need more support from business than ever. Businesses volunteering professional time and skills make a huge contribution to communities in need – particularly when working together and pooling talent on a project, where they make a real impact.

“Pro bono volunteering is also good for businesses, as it develops professional skills in a new environment and motivates employees and partners at a time when morale may not necessarily be very high.”

Nick Farrow, from Farrows Design Consultants, said ProHelp was a good way of utilising downtime between projects as well as helping to put something back into the community.

“We were asked to the do the branding for the retail academy and we thought ‘let’s try and make it work for everyone’. That was the key. The real winners are the kids who get the training and the city of Norwich which gets the Ego store.”

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