Celebrating 10 years of the Gloucestershire Services Project
The community behind the project provides a reason to be cheerful amidst the terrible news of the past few weeks, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.
On the eve of British elections, I received an invitation to have dinner at the House of Commons.
The reason was to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of a project: the Gloucestershire Services Project. Everyone, the world over, is sick and tired of hearing politicians promise more jobs, better prospects and better days – only without following through with actions. But the Gloucestershire Services Project is celebrating a promise kept: some 400 jobs created.
The Gloucestershire Services are a pair of Motorway Services areas on the M5 between Junction 11A and Junction 12, near Whaddon, Gloucester. The project does not offer outlets for chain food brands, and sells artisanal food. It has brought people together, absorbed local farmers' produce, made a community work hard together, determined to overcome all obstacles.
Part of the success comes from Mark Gale, a visionary, charismatic man who is the Chief Executive of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust, the charitable partner which initiated the Gloucester Services project. Mark believes in people. He searched for an innovative way to turn a problem into a project to help local people.
‘We had 28 million vehicles a year carrying over 40 million people into Gloucestershire at one end and going out the other on the M5’ he says. ‘No-one in the communities it passed by got any benefit; it was just seen as a problem bringing pollution, congestion and noise.’
So Mark decided to do something about the problem. ‘Now we’ve turned the M5 into a community asset,’ he announces. The numbers speak for themselves. More than 400 jobs have already been created – with at least half going to people living in the Trust’s target communities of Matson, Tuffley, Podsmead and White City and the Stonehouse/GL10 area – and two community support hubs have opened.
The northbound services opened in May 2014 and the southbound services in May 2015, and at the time of writing, 400 people are employed, and the project also supports 150 local producers.
Last month Gloucestershire Gateway Trust started to distribute tens of thousands of pounds to community partners in their target neighbourhoods nearby and expects to share over £10 million with partners over the next 20 years.
So in fact, unlike the average politician, they've walked the talk.
On the site, the project also has a 3 acre community growing project (Growing Communities), a community gallery (currently featuring art from Play Gloucestershire), a beehive and murals and decoupages sharing community stories.
‘It's a truly brilliant project,’ says Martin Simon, a trustee and close friend of Mark Gale’s. ‘The stories are so moving. There was one woman who said, “I couldn’t afford a haircut. Then I started selling my sausage rolls here. The volumes increased. I can't believe how my life has changed. I even met Prince Charles when he visited the project”.’ The enthusiasm, the upbeat mood is infectious.
I look across at Mark Gale. Around him are his beloved Matson residents, trustees – both Labour and Conservative and even a Baroness. Yet, he is completely unpretentious, completely comfortable in his skin. Truly a Renaissance man. He can charm and enthuse anyone, of any persuasion. He doesn’t have a bad word for anyone.
Martin remarks, ‘Anyone who could accomplish this, must be able to tick the boxes in his life and say this was one of the most satisfying projects to have ever been accomplished.’
To take a negative, the ugly, noisy, much hated motorway, and turn into into a remarkable triumph is indeed a glorious achievement.
Especially in a month that has been ugly and violent, with multiple bombings and the London tower’s blazing inferno, it’s a huge relief to think about hope and goodness triumphing.
And in Gloucestershire, the motorway services see hope shining through for everyone.