‘We want to make sure people have everything they need’ – Sheffield estate’s community spirit belies its tough reputation
Reporter Dan Hayes visits Parson Cross to find the much-maligned estate’s reputation as a crime hotspot being challenged by an army of community workers working together to change the lives of its people for the better.
At the Parson Cross Community Development Forum it is lunch club day.
On the menu - prepared by project co-ordinators Louise Ashmore and Louise Askew - is stew with mashed potatoes and Yorkshire puddings, with rice pudding for dessert.
The club serves around 25 people each Tuesday and Friday, and offers a two-course meal for just £5, with bingo afterwards for a small additional charge.
It is one of the most popular but by no means the only event the 20-year-old forum puts on each week for the 40,000 people who live in the sprawling north Sheffield suburb, once the biggest council estate in Europe.
As well as the lunch club, the organisation also offers Taekwondo and dance, the ‘PX Batters’ sport sessions, women’s health discussion groups and a number of ‘memory cafes’ for people with dementia.
The last of these have been so successful that the forum has just been granted over £400,000 by the Big Lottery Fund to increase the number of cafes they hold, employ an additional project co-ordinator and expand the range of services they offer to dementia sufferers.
The lottery money is a fitting reward for the centre’s outstanding dementia provision, which encompasses help for those at the early stage of the disease all the way to those in the latter stages of the illness.
The forum has two paid staff and 15 to 20 volunteers, including people from the local Asda superstore who help out as part of the new superstore’s commitment to its community.
According to Louise Askew, who lives in nearby Longley, the lunch clubs are one of the only chances some people get to socialise all week.
“I don’t know what they would do without us,” she says.
“We have around 1,000 people coming through these doors every week and we do a lot in terms of mental health and reducing social isolation.
“Some of the people at the lunch clubs go for days without seeing anyone and we are the first person they ring if they need anything - even before their family sometimes.”
Such activities are in many ways a direct response to the well-documented problems of crime and poverty the area faces.
When asked about the neighbourhood’s reputation as a crime hotspot, both women say they understand why it has come about, but argue there is so much more going on in the area.
“The area has had problems like anywhere else,” says Louise Ashmore.
“But we are three or four times the size of any other council estate in the country. When you put that into perspective we are probably not that much worse than anywhere else.
“What our forum is about is making sure people on the estate have everything they need and what everybody else has available to them.”
“I have never felt unsafe around here,” agrees Louise Askew.
“A lot of the people around here have grown up on this estate so there is still a really strong sense of community here.”
Next door at the Dickory Dock Nursery, manager Caroline Hunt says Parson Cross’s reputation is undeserved, and is full of praise for the support they get from the families they serve.
“As a service we get so much support from this community,” she said.
“A lot of people have used the nursery, they value and respect it. And they look after us and protect us.
“A few times we have had bikes pinched but within a week they have been returned. The parents have found out who the culprits are and they have delivered them back to us.”
The forum and nursery both lease their space from St Thomas More Catholic Church, which was built 50 years ago to be an asset for Parson Cross.
Father Martin Trask says he is proud his church has provided opportunities for services like the forum and nursery to help local people.
“The building’s architecture is meant to show the role of the church in the local community, with the church at the centre and the community rooms around it.
“What the Parson Cross Forum and Dickory Dock Nursery prove is that the vision the parishioners had 50 years ago has been brought to fruition.
“When I was first appointed here 19 years ago my predecessor in the area said ‘good luck’ because of the reputation the area had, but I have made my home here.
“Yes, it has challenges but it is a great place to live as well. The people are down to earth and you know what you are going to get with them – in a good way.”
Outside, graffiti daubed on the wall of the Colley Working Men’s Club gives an unwelcome reminder of the difficulties the area faces, with a long-since obscured person’s name and the word ‘GRASS’ in three-feet tall letters.
However, just round the corner on Knutton Road, another mural, this one stylised and artistic, shows a different side to the neighbourhood. Featuring the words ‘my life is my community’, it has been made by young people who use the alternative education provision firm My Life Project, who work with children from across Sheffield for whom mainstream schooling isn’t suitable.
They are housed within the SOAR Works Enterprise Centre, created around seven years ago in a purpose-built building that hosts 40 tenants, from charities to businesses and artists and everything in between.
And it is projects like this – as well as the SOAR-operated Learning Zone on Wordsworth Avenue, the Parson Cross Forum and the Dickory Dock Nursery – that give hope that the area can shake off its troubled past and offer its residents hope of a brighter future.