Inverclyde Shed: improving wellbeing, tackling social isolation and reducing waste

| Anna Eaton

The pandemic hasn’t so much created social issues as shone a light on those that were already there. While social isolation has been exacerbated by lockdowns in the UK, it certainly isn’t new. The UK-wide Shed Association have long dealt with this issue, particularly among older men. And in Greenock and Gourock, the volunteer-run Inverclyde Shed is addressing this prevalent community need. 

“Men of a certain generation might not raise issues, they might just suffer in silence,” says Bruce Newlands, Founding Trustee and Chairperson of the Inverclyde Shed. “But, as they say, men don’t talk eye to eye, they talk ‘shoulder to shoulder’. It might be they’re both making something, working on the same plank of wood, and one starts talking to the other and telling them how they’ve been to the doctor and got some sort of diagnosis. It’s almost as though being preoccupied with making things gives that space to talk. The Shed facilitates that.” 

The Inverclyde Shed, part of the Scottish Men’s Shed network, has 59 paid members, as well as 593 associate members who make up the Shed’s online community. Members’ views are crucial to the design and development of the Shed, with paid members offered a vote on decisions including the design of the spaces and what tools are required, which community projects they want to get involved with, and the group’s future plans. There’s a lot of vulnerability within the group itself, whether that’s due to age, or mental or physical ill health. “Our oldest – and one of our most active – members is 85,” says Bruce. “One of our founding members is a veteran who’s dealing with complex PTSD and combat stress. We have other members who are long-term unemployed and have anxiety. Our main aim is to tackle social isolation by having a space where people can come together, make things and talk.”

Bruce knew of the Shed Network from his previous experience with creative technologies charity, MAKLab. After relocating from Glasgow to Gourock, he was put in touch with a group of men who were looking to set up a Shed. “I offered my help, given my previous experience with fundraising and with maker spaces,” says Bruce. “About a year later, I was invited to guest Chair an AGM. I left the meeting as the Chair of the brand new Inverclyde Shed. It was a bit of an ambush!” 

His key aims were to secure five years of core funding and to find the Shed a permanent home. A £10,000 National Lottery grant covered rental and overhead costs for the first year at the Shed’s main space, a 700-square-foot joinery workshop on Captain Street in Greenock, one of  the most deprived areas in Scotland. A second unit nearby serves as a craft space for smaller projects, such as wood carving. 

Seeing a need for outdoor space, the Shed took on a £1-a-year lease for a failing community garden in Gourock, under the premise that they would manage and develop it. “We got a grant and have significantly developed the garden over the last year,” says Bruce. “We’re about to extend by another half acre, adding a fruit tree and soft fruit orchard. And it’s been absolutely priceless during the pandemic to have an external space big enough to socially distance.”

Taking on the garden was timely, as the Shed’s indoor spaces have been effectively closed since March. As well as the garden, the team arranged weekly Zoom calls so members can gather online while they can’t meet in person. “We started the Virtual Shed immediately,” says Bruce, “and set up a Carving Club, giving out carving kits and wood to members. On Wednesday mornings, we’ll compare notes on what people have whittled, and just have a blether and a cup of tea. 

“We also set up the Digital Shed in Gourock, investing in a 3D printer that was housed alongside a CNC Router, a CNC Mill and a laser cutter. We got a maker space license for ViaCAD software so that our members could work in collaboration online, send it to the 3D printer or CNC router and then come to the workshop to pick up the finished product. Our disabled members are using 3D printing to make adaptations for their wheelchairs, and people have also used the printer to create customised face masks. It’s not ideal for addressing social isolation, but it keeps things ticking over.”

In the meantime, finding a long-term home for the Shed has remained a central strategy. With members’ backing, Bruce and the Trustees worked through community asset transfer legislation with Inverclyde Council. They were offered a £1-a-year, 25-year lease on 4,500-square-foot industrial space in Greenock. “The place is quite dilapidated. It’s a liability rather than an asset at the moment,” says Bruce. “We purposefully wanted a long-term lease rather than to own it. The Council remains the building’s owners, and, in partnership with them, we’ve applied to the Scottish Government for half a million pounds to renovate the space. If everything goes to plan, we’ll be able to open it in early 2022, and it will be there for a generation at least.”

The hard work and commitment of the group, particularly in response to the pandemic, has not gone unnoticed; the Inverclyde Shed was recently named Scottish Shed of the Year. But Bruce doesn’t believe the Shed exists in isolation; they’ve been inspired by, and inspire, their neighbours, too. “One of the nearby Sheds opened a modelling club, which was a prototype for our carving club during the pandemic. Another made visors for health workers, inspiring our digital shed. So we may have won the award this year, but all Sheds have got the potential to have huge community impact. And that’s what we want to do more of in the future. All we’re looking to do is set a bit of an exemplar of how communities can support each other. If we can help you, we will.”

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