Frome is a town that has compassion built into its make-up. Frome Medical Practice and its community-minded spirit has made national news and reached further afield. The town council is building its Neighbourhood Network to ensure everyone is being cared for during the pandemic and hopes to keep those connections strong into the future.

There are so many organisations that look after those in need I cannot begin to list them but Fair Frome acts as a hub to ensure they are talking to each other. And then there are the huge body of volunteers, people of Frome willing to give their time to others less fortunate than themselves. This is a special place.

In 2016 Dominic Barter, a man who developed an approach called Restorative Justice In Rio de Janeiro, gave a talk to a packed audience in Rook Lane Chapel. He spoke about a ‘community-based and -owned practice for dynamic engagement with conflict that grew from conversations with residents’ and how he ‘plays with dialogue and partnership, focusing primarily in the fields of education, justice, culture and social change.’

His worked is based on his discoveries having listened to many people living in the vast ghetto in Rio, that people need to feel that they are being listened to. He found that when this is done in a safe and respectful way, that supports victims, offenders and communities, a high percentage of people can begin move on from the impact of the injustices, disputes and conflict they have experienced. 

This practice had a powerful effect on both individuals and communities and found itself spreading far and wide.

Of course, this is not a new way of working, it is in fact ancient but something that has been lost over the centuries in our Western culture. There is a growing sense that its return is like a breath of fresh air and has been finding its way into different parts of our society in many different guises: conflict resolution, circle time in schools and citizens’ assemblies to name a few.

The outcome of this talk was that Wiltshire Police, one of the leading counties in bringing Restorative Justice into the criminal justice system, asked for volunteers to train in this process and more than twenty Frome residents signed up.

Five years on, Frome now has a small team of facilitators keen to bring their way of working to the community.

This couldn’t be more timely as Frome is facing a crisis that is a nationwide problem. In fact we are facing two issues that are often in direct conflict with each other: a lack of affordable housing and a need to protect valuable green spaces. Both are vital to our wellbeing and equally valid.

We all know that these are not new crises. They have been steadily growing over the decades, but they are issues that most members of the public have previously felt powerless to act on.

Although very little has changed to increase our feeling of empowerment, the need has forced the issue. However, the one thing that might just be able to help the situation is good conversation. 

Conflict, I have come to understand, is a part of life, it is not only necessary but a very healthy aspect of interacting as human beings. It is important to understand the role it can play, that when healthy discussion is held with all the players involved, with respect for all, then amazing solutions can often be found. 

Many people are scared of being drawn into conflict and equally, many people who never feel they have been heard, often find themselves left out of the conversation. It has been revealed that a well facilitated conversation group can be change making and can bring about results rarely imagined. The Irish Citizen’s assembly on abortion was a typical example, where the politicians were afraid to address it as it was such a contentious issue. The assembly surprised many and brought about a peaceful and positive result for many more than was expected.

How can we, as a community, start a conversation, that is away from the flawed construct of Social Media, that brings all the agencies to the table so we can begin to unpick the blockages in our tried and tested, but failed, methods of housing our community. How can we work with our green spaces, our councils, our developers and our community to ensure that everyone is heard, everyone has a chance to have their say and a healthy solution can be found?

We, at Frome Area Community Land Trust, are keen to hold these discussions so that everyone who wants to be part of finding an amicable way forward to building some genuinely affordable homes for those with a Frome connection, in perpetuity, in the right locations, can participate. 

Just like every vibrant community, Frome has issues that create friction, from politics to ecology, from race to housing. That is what life is about. If they can be discussed openly, face to face and with space for everyone’s voice to be heard, we can create a healthy, safe and positive environment together.