Sharing the burden of maintenance
The Maintenance Co-operatives Project - the clue to what this project is all about is in the name. It is about maintenance which as everyone knows is a vital part of sustaining historic buildings, but the key to it all is that second word ‘co-operatives’. It has been about bringing people together so they can share the maintenance of one or more places of worship.
Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the three and a half year project ran across five project areas: Lincolnshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, the South West, Cumbria and the North East. In that time, 32 co-operatives and four co-operative minis, as well as an additional four co-operatives set up in partnership with the National Churches Trust have been established, which between them have been looking after 200 places of worship.
But behind those facts, a lot has been more going on. Each co-operative received a free tailored training programme designed to meet local needs and interests. The programme covered everything from carrying out building condition surveys and writing a maintenance plan to hands-on activities such as dealing with damp. However, training went further than this. It ranged from conservation of fixtures and fittings to looking after and getting the most out of the churchyard. Day-long workshops looked at how congregations could start thinking about how those church buildings could be of service to their local communities. This included guidance on fundraising as well as on adapting a church building to meet the needs of a 21st century congregation and community. After all, maintaining a building that is being used is a much more positive experience.
There have in fact been over 173 events and training days attended by over 3800 people. The project has worked with both national partners such as the National Churches Trust, the Arthur Rank Centre, Caring for God’s Acre and Historic England, and also with local organisations including Inspired North East, Heritage Lincolnshire and the Churches Trust for Cumbria.
It has been about the buildings, but very much also about the people. The people who volunteered – over 550 of them – not only to climb the ladders and clean out the gutters, but also to take on the challenge of setting up a co-op and making it work. And it was at the November 2015 second project conference in Birmingham that we heard from those groups who were now ‘doing it for themselves’. Hearing from five of the Co-operatives that were up and running – the Melbury Gutter Gang, the Heart of Eden Maintenance Co-operative, the St George’s Kidderminster Co-operative, the Bartestree Cross Co-operative and the Lincoln City Co-operative – really made me realise what the project was all about.
It was inspiring to hear the enthusiasm and the pride and also to learn about the type of people who had got involved – some were members of one of the congregations, while others simply had an interest in local heritage and wanted to help. It was also good to hear that the Lincoln City Centre Co-operative working in partnership was now able to offer training opportunities to local unemployed people, which could help them add skills to their CVs.
The groups praised the project for the support they had received , the simple practical advice given and how easy it was to set up a co-operative.
Our volunteers took away two very important messages. First, that once you start doing regular maintenance and get on top of it, it becomes a lot easier and takes less time. It is obvious, but it was heartening to hear it said out loud.
Second, they stressed the importance of making it enjoyable and sociable, which basically came down to eating cake on every possible occasion and visting the local pub. Who’d have thought that maintenance could be fun.
Those who have been part of the co-ops set up under this project are obviously the lucky ones. They have not only received the training, but continual support and encouragement in person from the regional project officers: Stella Jackson, Sue Manson, Alaina Schmisseur, Kate Andrew and Judith Eversley.
At the third and final conference held in October 2016, it was clear that everyone was keen that the tried, tested and refined maintenance co-operative model should continue to be promoted whilst encouraging other groups to set up their own. It won’t be possible to provide the same level of personal support, but the good news is that there are resources to download on developing and putting into practice maintenance plans, and how to set up and manage a co-op. MCP training will also be available through SPAB Education and SPAB will continue to work with the project partners to ensure that training can be delivered as widely as possible.
Hopefully everyone who has come into contact with the SPAB MCP model will continue to spread the word. All Church of England and Roman Catholic dioceses, and faith buildings of all denominations should advocate the MCP approach and show people that regular maintenance can make a world of difference.
Only two weeks ago, I was speaking to an 80 year old churchwarden who was still going up ladders to clear the gutters on her grade II* church. She was worried who was going to take over when she could no longer get up there. I told her about SPAB MCP and she is going to find out more. From now on, no one should have to feel that they are left to undertake this vital task alone.
By Becky Payne