10 years of developing better communities

To mark Watford Community Housing’s tenth birthday, we celebrated what we achieved over our first decade. In this second instalment, we looked at how we’ve been empowering communities by investing in our tenants, reaching out to people and holding events which bring everyone together.

‘Community’ is part of our name for a reason. Helping people to lead happy and healthy lives is just as important to us as providing affordable, modern homes. We know that strong communities can make an immeasurable difference to people’s lives. That’s why we’ve been working to improve communities throughout our first ten years – helping to improve people’s wellbeing and to make our local areas friendly and safe places to live.


Investing in communities

As part of our initial promise to residents when they transferred over to us from Watford Borough Council, we committed £9 million to our Better Communities Fund (BCF), to help achieve our vision of building friendlier communities.  This money was set aside for community activities, events, and new community assets – and included £3.1 million for environmental  improvements. There were a lot of ideas about where to invest it, so we listened to you and supported a huge variety of projects around the local area.

Some of the Better Communities Fund was used on estate transformations, which meant we refurbished community hubs, built a sports legacy zone and created more parking bays for residents. We focused some of the money on encouraging people to learn and try new things, which meant donating money to education access funds, investing in community start-ups and buying musical instruments for a community music project. We also made sure that young people were catered for by funding the start-up of a radio station for young people and creating a soft play area for a children’s centre. 

By 2014, the funding had been fully committed to projects across Watford and Three Rivers. Within those first seven years, the Better Communities Fund helped to improve our tenants’ quality of life by making communities healthier, wealthier, greener, cleaner and friendlier for everyone.

To continue this work, we then established the Community Development Fund – a dedicated annual investment which allows us to carry on supporting community projects. We also access a number of other funding streams to help support this work and provide up to £17,000 for our local resident groups. This covers many of their essential costs, allowing them to initiate their own community projects as well as acting both as a clear point of contact in the community and as a channel of information for residents.

Funding community projects and helping bright ideas to flourish has been one of our proudest achievements. However, we know that we need to invest more than just money in our communities. Training, emotional support, recognition and providing the right skills are often the most important investments a project or person can receive.

To recognise the unsung heroes who give their time to help others bring the community together, we have run initiatives such as the Community Champions and Youth Champions awards and we have also given our nominations to Watford Borough Council’s Audentior Awards. Those nominated included people whose imagination helped to bring community initiatives and social activities to fruition, or whose hard work and creativity helped to bring the community together through channels such as newsletters and websites.


Hubs – a space for everyone

With all these amazing activities going on, we quickly realised that our community projects needed more space to flourish – so we created several community hubs. The hubs are the centre point for a wide range of activities, and the opportunities they bring for meeting, playing, exercising and partying make them invaluable to us and to our communities.

Leavesden Green community hub, our biggest and best-equipped hub, was transformed in 2013 through a £1.1 million refurbishment scheme. We expanded and upgraded facilities both inside and outside the old community centre, creating meeting rooms, halls and kitchen space.

Together with the Harebreaks hub, Leavesden Green is an affordable space for groups who want to make a difference, or for anyone who needs a space to gather in surroundings which suit their needs. Having large, communal spaces where communities can come together has been vital to our efforts to keep in touch with residents and deliver community initiatives throughout our first ten years.

Some of our smaller hubs were even created as a direct result of your requests. In 2014, after one of our option studies revealed the need for a community space for the Edward Amey and Cow Lane Residents’ Association, we renovated a building to create the Edward Amey Hub.

The community hub at Haines Way was also established after a request from local residents. Originally used as a base by one of our contractors, the building was reborn as a community hub once the works had finished. It has since been extended and is now home to the Leavesden Community Group, which uses the building to run events for the Leavesden area.

It’s not just our hubs that we’ve helped to regenerate – we also contributed £300,000 to support the dramatic refurbishment of the Meriden Community Centre. Completed in 2016, it received a new look and updated facilities thanks to funding from a number of local partners. 

Reaching out

A friendly, safe community is one that is shared by everyone equally. Some people can find it harder to access services than others – such as those who have mobility issues, people who are vulnerable or anyone who may feel at risk of discrimination. To make sure our communities are open to all, we’ve made it our mission to reach out and create the same exciting, enriching opportunities for everyone.

To achieve this, over the last decade we’ve provided events, groups and programmes for people in all walks of life. Young people, older people, disabled people, ethnic and social minorities and everyone in between. Projects such as Yo! Youth, Box Cleva and BeeZee Bodies focus on getting young people out and about and keeping them healthy, whilst giving them a huge dose of fun.

For the older people in our community, including those who live in our sheltered schemes, we provide chances to make friends, get physical and learn new skills. In particular, our Nifty Fifties programme has been a great success, with regular events including art classes, yoga, murder mystery nights and trips to London and Brighton.

We work with and fund ethnic minority groups, including Hibiscus, a group for Muslim women, and the Watford Afro-Caribbean Association, as well as supporting the Polish Community Day and local Chinese New Year celebrations. We also provide core funding to the Watford Celebration, an annual festival for local diversity.

We support other events and organisations which reach out to minority groups. We sponsor and attend Herts Pride, supporting the local LGBT community. Our offices on Clarendon Road are shared by community organisations who rent space at a reduced cost, such as Disability Watford, Vibe 107.6 and the Watford Credit Union. Our award-winning Community Navigator scheme also makes sure we help the most vulnerable people reach the services they need the most.

Another way we find out what matters to you in your community is through our option studies. These involve gathering your thoughts on your neighbourhood to help us identify improvements we could make. As well as using traditional surveys, we have also made use of our mobile video diary booth, the Comments Campervan!

The option studies can really make a difference – many of our residents’ associations have been set up as a result, as well as the creation of neighbourhood newsletters or physical improvements. For example, in 2009 the Holywell study revealed the need to make the neighbourhood easier to navigate, which led to us putting up much more prominent signs on the buildings in response to residents’ comments.


Our biggest community moments

Sometimes, there’s no better way to bring everyone together than by throwing a party. Our tenth birthday this year will be a chance to celebrate, but over the years we’ve hosted lots of great events which celebrate communities and give everyone a chance to let their hair down!

To celebrate our fifth birthday, we held some amazing events including ‘letting’ our chief executive Tina Barnard abseil down 17-storey Munden View – raising almost £50,000 for the Peace Hospice! We also got out into the community to show our support for those of you who volunteer regularly – doing tasks such as painting garages, litter-picking and planting shrubs.

The same year, we organised the Watford 2012 event, inviting our partners and residents to come and join us for a day of fun at Knutsford Playing Fields. There were inflatables, rides, face-painting stands and a stage where some of Watford’s finest performers showed off their talents. Companies from all over Watford came along to share what they do best – from small, independent companies through to organisations like Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue.

Events like these, and other smaller events such as the opening of the newly-refurbished Horwood Court in 2016, the Swannells Walk Big Lunch in 2015 and the Healthy Living Week in 2011, bring us all together.


Our incredible volunteers

Over the last 10 years, much of the hard work to improve our communities has been undertaken by people who choose to donate their time to worthy causes without asking for anything in return. From boardroom to bake sale, from Gateway Membership Team to Green Canteen, every volunteer from the local community and beyond has embraced our vision of developing friendlier communities. Working alongside our team of community workers, these volunteers have given hours of their time, raised thousands of pounds and made an overwhelming difference to our community out of the kindness of their hearts – and we’re enormously grateful for everything they do.


Our community

It’s vital to us that our work is about more than just housing. The support network offered by a strong community is an important factor in helping to improve people’s life chances, mental health and physical health too. We also strive to make our communities greener and cleaner, so that the planet benefits as well.

We’ve supported so many different groups, events and schemes over the last 10 years that it’s hard to celebrate them all in one go! If you’ve got a favourite community moment, why not share it in the forum section below? We’ll even see if we can dig out old pictures of your favourite memories…