Barrington back from the brink

If Steve Robinson hadn’t decided to enjoy a bacon sandwich in bed that cold Sunday morning last January, things might have turned out very differently for the Barrington Centre.

As he lingered over his breakfast, the busy Chief Executive Officer of Dorset charity Prama picked up the previous day’s paper and saw that the well-supported community centre in Ferndown had closed suddenly. It was opened by Princess Margaret on 30 July 1986 and for more than 30 years was run by the Ferndown Community Association Charity. The trustees had pulled the plug at lunchtime the previous Friday, citing insolvency. Not only was Ferndown Drama Group locked out of the theatre for its Saturday night performance, Ferndown Town Council, with offices in the building, was reduced to operating on an emergency phone line, and Dorset Police community support officers were also unable to use their office.

‘I read the story and my conscience just clicked – a connection moment,’ says Steve. ‘I thought: “This should not happen.” I knew the Barrington had to be saved and I was certain that Prama could do it.’

After several phone calls on Monday, Steve arranged to meet the town council at the Barrington on Tuesday morning and got there to find the regular Tai Chi group holding its session outside, in front of the locked doors.‘It was a foggy morning and everything seemed very flat. It was as if the heart of Ferndown had stopped beating. Then people turned up with collecting buckets determined to raise the money needed to keep it open. It was a sign of life.’

By the end of the week more than £15,000 had been donated. It was nowhere near enough but clear evidence – if any were needed – how much the people of Ferndown valued their community centre. Crucially, by the end of the week Steve had done a deal that saw Prama take over the day-to-day running of the Barrington and cover costs. Its doors were open again. That steadied the ship and on 1 June last year, Prama officially leased the building from its owners, Christchurch and East Dorset District Council.

‘It wasn’t just that Ferndown stood to lose its main community meeting place, but there were fifteen full- and part-time jobs at stake here as well,’ says Steve. ‘The Barrington is the social heart of Ferndown and Prama is determined it will be a centre for all ages.’

Steve is well aware that the charity’s involvement raised a few quizzical eyebrows. Founded as Pramacare in 1982 to help patients coming out of hospital, the organisation has grown considerably and for some time has been mostly associated with the provision of domiciliary home care, predominantly for older people. More recently Prama has undergone a major change and been re-constituted as the Prama Foundation with PramaCARE as its charity providing domiciliary care and PramaLIFE, a not-for-profit social business offering community outreach services

‘Prama’s involvement in the Barrington is self-funding and absolutely fits with our wider strategy,’ says Steve, whose background is in international youth work and developing public policy on age-friendly and inter-generational community programmes rooted in social justice. He is frequently called on by All-Party Parliamentary Groups and Prama now advises the United Nations in New York on issues related to ageing. The charity is also signed up to the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People.

‘If we can engage people in their early and mid-life by getting them involved in community activities and keeping them in circulation, the habits they establish then will inform how they’ll be in later life. Life has a habit of knocking us down and although we get back up, we don’t always recover to where we were before the last knock. That inability to recover gradually turns us from independent adults into dependent older people, leading to isolation and the problems we associate with ageing.

Steve Robinson and Prama operations director Paula Jones

‘First of all, we have to stop patronising and start involving older people. Older people are not “them”; they’re “us”. We are all one community and in Ferndown the Barrington is at the heart of that. What we’re doing here should provide a model for what can be achieved in other communities as well.’

The centre records more than 70,000 visits a year. It runs a broad-based programme of local and professional theatre, music and dance shows in the 250-seat theatre, as well as craft fairs, food festivals and corporate events. The recently refurbished Penny’s coffee house and restaurant will be working more closely with the venue’s bar to establish a new venue, and the centre’s meeting rooms are already running at 80 per cent capacity with local classes, groups and societies aimed at all ages.

‘It’s a real juggling act to fit everyone in the diary – a nice problem to have,’ says Steve. ‘We’ll put on touring shows but we’re not out to compete directly with the area’s professional theatres. I see us being much more rooted in the community, providing shows people want to see. I’d like to establish a production company here as well, something that incorporates video and digital technology that will involve younger people, and we’re in touch with the KGV youth centre to make sure we complement what they’re doing.’

A priority concern of Steve’s as Prama took over the Barrington was to re-establish the popular programme of coach trips, away days and tours, which will now be ATOL registered to offer greater protection and peace of mind. ‘Prama has been very careful since we came in not to shake things up for the sake of it. We have expertise and experience in all sorts of areas from human resources to finance and the law, so our first concern was to create the infrastructure needed to run the Barrington as the mid-sized business it has become, rather than as a small charity. So we’ve invested in new kitchen equipment, some new computers and software, that kind of thing.’

He’s taking nothing for granted, but Steve Robinson is the first to admit that none of what has been achieved at the Barrington Centre would have been possible without the full support of the people of Ferndown.

‘The feedback I get is that people are phenomenally grateful to Prama for saving the centre, but we inherited a great deal of goodwill and that history is important. Although we want to secure the future, we’ll only be able to do that properly if we honour the past.’

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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