Surrey Choices Growth Team Successfully Overcomes Barriers to Help Transform County

Surrey Choices

The Surrey Choices Growth team, which currently has 22 members, teaches and supports people with learning disabilities, termed ‘customers’ by the team, to carry out practical tasks, helping to maintain the Surrey countryside and its public spaces.

Gaining valuable work experience with local Landscapers  (Surrey Choices)
Gaining valuable work experience with local Landscapers (Surrey Choices)

Surrey Choices provides support services in the community for people with learning, mental, physical or sensory disability. The social care provider offers a range of day and community support services, supported employment, enhanced home living and support, as well as providing training and skills.

Customers are referred to the team through their social care practitioners, working with people who have a range of different needs within a specific part of the county. There is a fixed fee to attend the group, which covers the cost of transport and enables Surrey Choices to help and support customers to achieve their goals.

The growth team has been established for over 20 years, and has a wealth of experience in the specialist role between health and social care and countryside management.

Each customer involved in the project has an allocated growth team key worker and an employment support worker from the Surrey Choices EmployAbility team. The EmployAbility scheme helps customers find paid work, training and volunteering opportunities, as well as helping to assist in setting up businesses.

The Growth Team’s countryside management is carried out from three of Surrey Choices Hubs, based in Redhill, Woking and Frimley.

The team maintaining a local Nature Reserve  (Surrey Choices)
The team maintaining a local Nature Reserve (Surrey Choices)

The team has worked closely with Woking Borough Council for a number of years, managing two of the council’s local nature reserves. The growth team met with the council to look at the opportunity to develop their work into paid opportunities, which was well received and contracts were drawn up.

One of the main sites the team has been working on is a designated urban fringe local nature reserve. It had been in a very poor condition with challenges accessing the site, due to it being close to two SSSI sites. Funding to transform the space was approved through the Suitable Alternative Natural Green Spaces initiative and a management plan was discussed and presented to the team. The Growth Team produced a monthly schedule; once this was approved the work began.

Mark Evenden, Growth Team Leader at Surrey Choices said: “Starting the project was a nerve-racking experience. During the initial months we constantly felt that we were running behind schedule. The Woking Borough Council managers came for an on-site visit and were delighted with the progress, which helped to settle our nerves as we then knew we were on track.”

The Surrey Choices Growth Team improving local community space  (Surrey Choices)
The Surrey Choices Growth Team improving local community space (Surrey Choices)

The team worked incredibly hard to clear over 20 trees from the centre of the site, and found remnants of an old wildflower area. Contractors were brought in to plough through the five acre area, before a sow of wetland wildflower mix to create a meadow that the team could manage.

Reflecting on the challenges the team has faced, Mark said: “In the initial stages of the project we did face a number of challenges. We received hostility from the local community at first, who thought we were clearing the area for property development, or were taking away a space they felt was their own. On the other end of the scale we were mistaken for being part of a probation service, so people would keep their distance from us. We tackled these issues by having Surrey Choices signs and leaflets made, and people’s perceptions quickly changed. The local community then became very interested in our work, and would often pop by for a chat. This was great for our customers as it really broke down the barriers, and helped those who can find communication challenging.”

“As an organisation, Surrey Choices’ vision is to inspire people of all abilities to fulfil their potential and reach their goals, whilst breaking down preconceptions of what can be achieved by people with learning disabilities. The Growth Team have successfully demonstrated this, and felt immense pride in the effort and work they have put in”

The Growth Team’s only regret was that they didn’t take enough photos of the transformation at the nature reserve and didn’t publicise the project. On reflection, the team felt that if the project had been publicised it may have encouraged people to respect the site.

The end of a very busy day managing a local  nature reserve (Surrey Choices)
The end of a very busy day managing a local nature reserve (Surrey Choices)

Sadly, funding was later withdrawn from the original site, which was a great disappointment. However, driven by a desire to ensure that all the hard work wasn’t wasted, the team decided to volunteer at the site for free to help keep the area accessible and looking tidy, with a group of young people with learning disabilities.

The excellent work carried out by the growth team has resulted in more work from another site which was larger than the previous one. Alongside that, the growth team has been busy volunteering for Surrey Heaths Green Spaces team, helping them to manage a number of sites. The teams have struck up a brilliant partnership, which they hope to continue for many years. As a result of that partnership, Surrey Choices Growth Team was offered a derelict council nursey, which has become a waste dumping ground. Within six months the space was transformed, and they now have a rent free horticulture project with a poly tunnel, a building with a classroom and storage room. In addition to it being used as a training centre, they also use the space to grow fruit and vegetables, which they sell, as well as plants to improve community spaces.

One difficulty is finding industry specific training for long term volunteers. Despite volunteers having years of experience, because they have poor numeracy and literacy skills they are unable to pass Lantra or City and Guilds training for using machinery, which is a health and safety requirement. To help overcome this, the Growth Team found Surrey Heath Training Group, a local training group, which provides training and learning support to make sure customers achieve the best they can. If customers can’t meet the strict criteria to pass, they receive a certificate of achievement, which highlights what they have learnt. The certificate is a great help for people looking for employment, and helps the Growth Team to meet its health and safety commitments.

Mark said “The last couple of years have been very busy for the Growth Team, and it has been an amazing experience for everyone. The team has proved to be a great success, and we’ve opened up so many possibilities. With an enthusiastic team and positive managers, we’re determined to take as many opportunities as we can, to raise our profile within the community and showcase our hard work and capabilities”.

If you would like any further information or would like to make a referral please do not hesitate to contact the Surrey Choices Growth team on 01483 806806 or via email to

First published in CJS Focus on Overcoming Barriers in association with the Outdoor Recreation Network on 14 November 2016