Deputy CEO Blog: Barking Food Forest: Sowing seeds of change 

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Deputy CEO Blog: Barking Food Forest: Sowing seeds of change 

My work supporting the Barking Food Forest (BFF) project so far has been a real eye-opener. At times it has been really thrilling and a joy to be part of, at other times no fun at all and a real source of frustration at how long substantive progress can take. 

It is only as I write this that it is fully dawning on me that I have now been engaged in the plan to bring what we now lovingly refer to as ‘BFF’ to full fruition for over 4 years. It started with the Young Citizen Action Group (YCAG) at Riverside School gaining keys to the land next to their school in December 2019 after a year of hard-work and persistence. The YCAG were passionate about the need for more green spaces locally and eventually convinced Barking Riverside Ltd to give them the keys to the site to develop a community garden space. All was going well and the YCAG along with other groups of Riverside School students were able to meet with Nikhil Rathore, a local resident and permaculture expert, to start developing a shared vision for the site. Everyone was full of excitement and hope, and it felt like it would be all smooth sailing thereafter…  


Then, only a few months into 2020 and with plans being made to take the site forward, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and all our plans for in-person engagement were scuppered for what felt like forever – so deflating! However, with resilience being a key lesson from what was a challenging time for all of us, we persevered and eventually were able to run several online co-design sessions with residents in February 2021 which yielded some really positive feedback and steer from local residents. Once everyone emerged out of lockdown, we were able to share the results of these sessions with the Neighbourhood Community Infrastructure Levy (NCIL) panel and were able to win a joint bid with our friends at Barking Reach Resident Association for £10,000 to develop the site. This and other funding pots like it from Barking & Dagenham Renew, London City Airport, Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID), the Greater London Authority (GLA) and more recently the London Marathon Charitable Trust, have supported some amazing work on site with residents from all walks of life able to enjoy time in the garden. We’ve had some real highlights on site, like the pumpkin parties, Diwali celebrations, Easter egg hunts, herbal and the GROW festival in partnership with Creative Barking & Dagenham last summer, which all highlighted the potential of the site as a space for arts and cultural events in the future. At the weekly sessions and at these bigger events and celebrations we have been overwhelmed with the enthusiasm and support of local people for the site, a powerful reminder of why all the hard-work is so necessary and important.  


However, plans for bringing a bountiful food forest to life have proven far more challenging than we could ever have imagined. We have painstakingly sought to overcome a (seemingly endless) series of limitations and obstacles associated with developing a garden on a site with power cables underneath and rapid development going on all around it – at times it has felt like death by a thousand cuts! I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve thought we were about to steam ahead only to fall down another rabbit hole that takes months to get out of. Thinking positively though, it really does feel like we’ve got it this time (dare I hope?) and have very recently shared amended plans with UKPN, BRL, LBBD and Partnership Learning which, once approved by all stakeholders, will then be submitted for planning permission and hopefully unlock the full potential of the site with a polytunnel, pond, pavilion and lots and lots more planting! As if that wasn’t enough P’s the most important one that we need to bring to the site is PEOPLE and we are keen to get more residents involved in BFF by attending weekly sessions which will be relaunching this month and playing an active role in shaping how it develops and is managed by residents long-term. We’re also hoping that approval of our plans will soon unlock some long-promised £££s (POUNDS) from Barking Riverside Ltd which have been years in the making and feel close enough to almost touch now. Fingers crossed! 


We/I wouldn’t have got this far without some invaluable support from many stakeholders along the way who must be acknowledged: 

  • Morgan Sindall Volker Fitzpatrick (MSVF), the company who built the new Barking Riverside Overground station, provided a scan of the site to help us know exactly where the cables are as well as some materials and labour. 
  • UK Power Networks (UKPN), who own the power cables underneath the site, have always done their best to accommodate the community vision for the site and are also keen to help facilitate the donation of materials and volunteer labour to put the plans into fruition. 
  • Every One Every Day have supported several making sessions and planter building workshops at BFF and committed to part-funding a polytunnel alongside local people. 
  • Make:Good will be delivering a pavilion that will be able to host get togethers, performances and harvest rainwater which has been co-designed by local students from Riverside School. As if that wasn’t enough they have provided invaluable support in the form of scaled plans for the site which we hope to, one day soon(ish), submit for planning permission. 
  • McLaren Construction Group have donated trees and offered labour further down the line. 
  • Groundwork have run horticulture training programmes with local people and built bench planters and tree-boxes on site and will be returning in the summer to do more.  
  • Partnership Learning, the academy trust behind Riverside Primary, Bridge and Secondary, have confirmed their intention to offer Thames Life a long-term lease on the site – making it a real sustainable community asset, PRICELESS! 

When I grow weary of all the hurdles and delays to getting this project off the ground, I just try to remind myself of the enthusiasm shown by residents so far and of the green haven it can offer residents who may not have their own gardens or who crave a pleasant space to interact and grow together with their neighbours. I’ll continue to persist until the job is done and I hope as many residents as possible get involved in any way they can! 


Jamie Kesten 

Deputy CEO, Thames Life 

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