Tuesday, May 19, 2009 - 11:17

Homeless and disadvantaged people and prisoners around the country had cause to celebrate today (Tuesday) when The Key garden won silver at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The garden is a collaboration between the Eden Project, national regeneration agency the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), Communities and Local Government (CLG), the national membership charity Homeless Link and the London Employer Accord.

A journey through this, Chelsea's biggest show garden, reveals exclusion, choices, fortune, opportunity, hope, achievement and change - and its powerful and challenging themes have proved a winner with the Royal Horticultural Society judges.

The garden has been created by around 200 volunteers from across the country, most of whom are currently using homelessness services. People in six prisons have also joined in with the growing and planting.

Rob Greenhill, a volunteer and service user at Watford New Hope Trust, said today: "It's been a joy to produce the plants and see them integrated in such a beautiful display. The experience has improved my self esteem and I hope will help me gain regular work and stable accommodation."

Homelessness Minister Iain Wright said: "The Key garden epitomises what is at the heart of our Places of Change agenda - that tackling homelessness for the long-run is about giving people the opportunity to unlock their potential and get their lives back on track. It has given homeless people across the country the chance to not only be involved in a prestigious national event, but also have the opportunity to work with others and learn valuable new skills that will help them find a job.

"Meeting some of the volunteers, as I did last week, is evidence itself of how projects like The Key garden can have a life changing affect on those involved and be the first step on the road to independence."

Howard Jones, the Eden Project’s Director of Human Networks, said: “As great a joint effort the Chelsea garden has been on the part of the hundreds of disadvantaged people who have planted, grown and built it, it is not an end in itself. After the show is over, the partners intend that this project continues to have an impact on the lives of people in this country. In particular, Eden will seek to expand the Great Day Out and Growing for Life programmes, which are underlying themes for the garden and continue to drive collaborative projects that support an inclusive and equitable society.

Jenny Edwards, Chief Executive of Homeless Link, said: "The Key represents opportunity in so many ways for homeless people. It shows what they can achieve given the chance and that they can stand proud alongside professional garden designers at the Show. We expect that the impact of the Key will be long-lasting as out of date stereotypes about homeless people are broken down."

The project aims to demonstrate what’s possible, if people are just given the right opportunity to turn their lives around. This is the ethos of the HCA’s Places of Change programme (previously managed by CLG), which is seeking to improve the services and opportunities available for homelessness service users. The Key project is an excellent example of this in action, and it is hoped that by experiencing this garden, some of the stereotypes often associated with society’s most disadvantaged people can be broken down.

For many volunteers, growing and caring for the 10,000 plants required to make this unique garden, it is a chance to demonstrate skills they have learned and developed through contact with homelessness services and 'places of change'. All will have experienced significant challenges including poverty, exclusion, poor skills and a lack of formal qualifications and opportunity. And through their involvement with The Key they are demonstrating how they are turning their lives around.

Richard Cunningham, Manager of the HCA's Places of Change programme, said: "This project has given some of society's most disadvantaged people the opportunity to learn new skills, and in doing so, unlocked their potential, restored their confidence and given them hope for the future. Places of Change - as we've endeavoured to show with this Garden, represents the opportunity to begin afresh, the garden therefore symbolizes a journey - a tough one nonetheless, but one filled with tremendous positivity. This is what our Places of Change programme is all about.”

The Key garden was designed by Paul Stone, Eden’s Hard Landscape Manager, in conjunction with development charity Architecture sans Frontières-UK.

A major “wow” feature is its vertical green wall measuring 65 feet by 7 feet and installed with more than 4,000 young and tender plants. It’s a view of the future of urban gardens where there will be less space and a greater emphasis on the environment combined with the trend of self sufficiency and ‘growing your own’.

The garden is an innovative combination of both decorative ornamental plants and productive plants which not only look good, but also provide food - a lush alternative to breeze blocks, fencing or a traditional hedge. You’ll find soft fruit, vegetables and herbs mixed with ornamentals such as common herbaceous perennials, periwinkle, saxifrage, succulents and mosses.

The Key's carbon footprint has been minimised using as little hard landscaping as possible. All the materials have come from recycled or sustainable sources. The Places of Change pavilion, designed by Architecture sans Frontières-UK, is made from reclaimed materials through training programmes with people involved in the Homeless Link Network.

In conjunction with the Eden Project, CLG, HCA and Homeless Link, the London Employer Accord (LEA) has worked to enable 20 London-based volunteers from the ex-offender and homeless community to design and create The Key to demonstrate their horticultural and customer service skills.

The London Employer Accord aims to provide the opportunity and support for participants to develop their skills to achieve the ultimate goal of changing their circumstance through sustained employment.

The London Employer Accord is one of the project sponsors, and have used the network of Accord employers to secure attendance of some of the UK’s leading businesses at the Chelsea Flower Show exhibitors evening on 19 May.

This is the start of a commitment to support participants of the project on their journey to change their lives and improve their employment prospects.

Candidates who are volunteering on the garden will be given the opportunity to meet the employers to showcase their skills and ability, and to discus directly how they will be able to meet the employer’s recruitment and business needs.

Neville Cavendish, Director of the London Employer Accord, said “I am really pleased that the Employer Accord has had the opportunity to support this exciting project.

“When we were asked by the Eden Project to get involved I felt it was something that we could not refuse, because it is a great chance to show employers that people who might have had some bad experiences in the past are still fit for today’s labour market, and have skills and experience that they need in their business.

“We are going to use the London Employer Accord network to showcase everyone’s skills and then work with St Giles’ Trust, Jobcentre Plus, and a range of training providers, to move as many of the volunteers as possible into paid employment over the coming months.

“I have already met some of the volunteers who are working on the garden and they are very keen to talk to the employers and discuss their aims and goals for developing their skills and getting a job. This is a great example of the type of partnership working that the London Employer Accord is about.”