We recently said farewell to Wildlife Way’s Engagement Officer, Peter Sharples. But before he left we asked him to reflect on his time with the team.
The engaging world of Wildlife Ways
One of the most important requirements for the Wildlife Ways project was making sure residents, community groups, councillors and anyone affected by the works and changes were kept up-to-date with what the council and their contractors were doing.
This meant having someone in place who could act as a crucial link between Solihull Council and the wider community. As Wildlife Ways engagement officer, I came up against many interesting personal and professional challenges.
Firstly, there was getting to know several new technical terms and processes – for example, the difference between wildflower turf and seeding and the difference each has in terms of process, plants and appearance. And the new pathways are not just a fresh topping of surfacing, but a number of layers with specific properties, such as their ability to reduce water pooling.
Then there was being able to react quickly to changes in the programme. Sometimes it would be weather issues, other contractor’s works – such as utilities – going on close by, or simply a case of better opportunities to do a piece of work sooner than expected. I would have to be flexible enough to get messaging and information out in short space of time to those potentially impacted. However by reviewing processes and putting new ones in place where necessary meant we were able to turn these things around quickly.
The biggest challenge was, of course, Covid-19. This was not just in terms of continuing work on the project safely (especially with some of the reservations about continuing works people had at the start of the pandemic) but also getting out and meeting communities. 2019 had seen the Wildlife Ways team attending events such as Oaks and Shires and Fun in the Park (at Tudor Grange) and joining local schools to plant bulbs in such parks as Hillfield and Babbs Mill.
2020 meant all the plans we had – for even more shows and community participation events – were out and, like everything else, most activities went online instead. I was lucky enough to be able to keep my links with parish councils and community groups going to keep them updated and do some socially distanced onsite briefings with councillors during the ‘lull’ in the summer.
However the big gain from doing more online engagement was receiving and sharing via email and social media public delight in the project, especially the wildflowers – with many schools wanting to do their own projects and community groups who wanted any wildflower turf or bulbs we might have left over!
It’s a sign of the success of a project when the complaint isn’t about having the work done – but not having it done, that many people want to have a part of Wildlife Ways on their doorstep. Even from as far away as Stourbridge! In summer 2019 a group of ladies, visiting Solihull for the day from there, came over to admire the wildflowers opposite the railway station and – as well as getting an impromptu briefing form one of our suppliers – told us that they didn’t have anything like it where they came from!
And that is the beauty of Wildlife Ways. Like any big project, not everyone will be happy. But from my experience the majority have been delighted and supportive. And as more local authorities embrace cycling projects or turn their open spaces over to nature, Solihull has joined these up into one strategic, holistic approach for the sustainability, health and wellbeing of the borough. Something that Solihull can be proud of for years to come.