Scotland’s justice secretary has praised the work of offenders who have transformed a much-loved Falkirk park as part of their community service.
Keith Brown visited Dollar Park on Thursday to meet some of the people behind the changes to its walled garden, which has gone from derelict to picture-perfect since 2015.
On a dreich November day, the flowers aren’t in bloom and the busy vegetable patches are now being made ready for next season – but the minister was still impressed.
The project was highlighted as an example of how unpaid work can benefit the community, while also helping offenders learn new skills in a bid to keep them out of jail for good.
And that combination has got to be a good thing, the minister believes.
He said: “We find that by and large we have less recidivism – less convictions – from people who get a community sentence, compared to those who go to prison.
“As long as the community feels safe and the supervisors feel safe, if the people that are doing the work get something out of it, then that’s got to be a good thing.”
The garden is a partnership between the charity Cyrenians and Falkirk Council’s Justice Services.
For Roy Dewar, senior supervisor of the unpaid work team, it is just one of many projects they help with, but there is no doubt it’s a special one.
Mr Dewar said: “A lot of the service users who come to us, they’ve not got any skills at all and hopefully by the end of their time with us they will have picked something up that will help them into employment.
“There are quite a few who come back and say ‘I’ve got a job’ because of the skills they learned when they were here, and that makes it worthwhile for us.”
Ruth, the garden co-ordinator for Cyrenians, said the garden is “very much a joint venture” between the Justice Service and the charity.
She said: “It’s a big project and it’s an ongoing project. There’s always something to do here, so there’s always something available for the unpaid work team all year round.
“We couldn’t get through our work without the input from them and likewise, it’s a good working partnership.
“It provides us with the labour force we need to maintain the garden because it is very labour intensive.”
As well as looking after the walled garden, the team now also look after the flowerbeds by the fountain, and the incredible floral clock, which can be seen in summertime in all its glory.
Last year, they introduced an SVQ Introduction to Horticultural Skills, which they now hope to expand.
Some of those who are sent along can be reluctant, grumbling that they know nothing about gardens.
Mr Dewar said: “There is trepidation. Sometimes you get them on the phone the first time they are meant to be here, they’re phoning up with excuses, and we say, ‘no, you’ve got to come’.
“But by the end of the day, they’ve completely changed their attitude and ask if they can come back tomorrow.”
Ruth says that even after five years in the job, she’s still taken aback at how much enthusiasm there is.
“Some people have never been in a garden before,” she said.
But many become so keen that when their work orders are finished they return as volunteers.
Mr Dewar said: “They take a lot of pride in what they’ve achieved here. There are still guys who were here at the beginning of this and you see them bringing their kids round the garden, saying ‘I helped with this’.
“It’s a great project.”
Ruth and Mr Dewar are proud of the way the walled garden has been taken to heart by the community over the years, and they say the unpaid teams are delighted when visitors stop to chat and complement their work.
“I think there’s a bit of magic around it for Falkirk people – it’s a wee gem,” said Ruth.
By local democracy reporter Kirsty Paterson