Bolton Octagon and Bolton at Home visit the European Parliament

On 14th July 2015, Lisa O'Neill-Rogan, Associate Director for Outreach and Learning at the Bolton Octagon Theatre came to the parliament to share her experience of working with Bolton at Home, a social housing charity challenging marginalisation in their community head-on.


Lisa O'Neill-Rogan (Bolton Octagon), Julie Ward MEP, Theresa Griffin MEP and Dawn Yates-Obe (Bolton at Home)

As an active MEP, Julie is often asked to propose organisations or projects demonstrating best practice in key areas to the various Committees or Delegations she is involved with; Julie regularly suggests examples from the North West, helping to build the profile of the region in a European context.

Julie said:

"What makes Lisa's contribution particularly special, is that we are bringing a creative project into the Regional Development Committee hearing on Cohesion Policy and Marginalised Communities, demonstrating just how effective the arts can be at addressing a multitude of social issues across all the Committees in the Parliament. Bolton at Home are a special social housing charity and the Bolton Octagon is a well respected regional theatre; together they prove how alternative approaches delivered with, not for a community, can build stronger and more sustainable relationships."

Please click here to watch Lisa's contribution on the YouTube channel or see the transcript below:


European Parliament, Committee for Regional Development
Hearing for Speech Lisa O’Neill-Rogan


Bolton is a tow in the north of England with a population of 276,800. Of that population 11.3 per cent were not born in the UK – nationally the figure is 13 per cent.

Bolton is one of the local authorities that participates in the gateway protection programme with 100 refugees being re settled in Bolton each year.

Bolton is a very diverse town but the high levels of unemployment and poverty in some areas of the town have meant that emerging communities have become more marginalised. In some areas of the town the white British population have reported that they also feel marginalised.

Issues connected with community cohesion are:

1. Communities are segregated leading to isolation

2. High levels of poverty lead to mistrust of emerging communities

3. Social housing is often surrounded by private sector property that can be transient communities or condensed areas of a specific nationality of people

Bolton at home is a registered charity providing social housing. In March 2011 following a vote of support from tenants they took over the ownership of house formerly owned by Bolton council. They now own and manage 18,000 homes in the borough.

Bolton at home works in partnership with The Octagon Theatre to provide creative solutions to issues in their neighbourhoods. Often this is about access to cultural opportunities and increased participation in projects that provide people with spaces to come together and learn about each other, themselves and their place in the world.

Together we use a cultural offer to create safe spaces for people to explore how they feel about issues that are important to the. The projects we facilitate encourage and support communities to grow and learn, they are empowered and often are provided wot a platform to make change for themselves. The projects create dialogue and transparency. We invest in people who then feel better about their lives. Both organisations have a shared ethos which is about empowering communities, building capacity and bringing people together to address the issues around social and economic regeneration.

Bolton at home are embedded within communities, neighbourhood management teams develop meaningful relationships with people, partnered with a creative approach to long term community development - building capacity, breaking down barriers, bringing people together, providing education and exposure to new shared experiences together we create opportunities for meaningful connections between people of any background.

Examples of this work are:

1. A short term project working with a group of Somalian and Sudanese women. This project brought together two groups to look at the issue of Female Genital Mutilation in Bolton. An issue very particular to these communities. We created a piece of theatre to empower women to address this issue within their own communities where FGM practices still existed and were happening in Bolton. This piece was then perfume at a national conference. It enabled the women to put forward the suggestion that the solution to FGM should come from within the community not from the police or NHS. It created a dialogue that allowed delegates to re think solutions and talk about a joint approach which meant the women did not feel ashamed of their customs.

This is an example of an issue that causes isolation and secrecy between communities. The creative process allowed groups to come together to discuss solutions. It was a shirt term intervention from the theatre that is then continued by the neighbourhood management team and other agencies in Bolton.

An example of a longer term project is a women’s group who were brought together to look at a creative project that addressed domestic violence. One year on, the group have now formed other community groups bringing together as diverse mix of people and self-elected a committee who are now constituted and are applying for external funding: creating an inclusive, sustainable model that they want to roll out into their communities.

A participant from that project had re located to Bolton from London and has been in Bolton for 10 years. She recently told a relative that only now after being part of the group does she feel that Bolton is her home and she would not want to leave.

Community cohesion is about providing safe spaces where people can come together and discover a shared interest.

The projects Bolton at home and The Octagon Theatre provide create that environment of trust, learning, support and development. Through participation and creating something together people become less fearful of difference.

Projects like these improve community cohesion because they involve the whole community, they might start with a small group but the impact and ripple effect of the project is often greater. Using the arts and especially theatre ensures visibility and encourages others from the wider community to become either audience or participants themselves therefore sharing the experience in some form. People are able to talk about issues in a very open, transparent and safe way.

The projects provide opportunities for communities to discover their own solutions. They bring together people from very different backgrounds and they very quickly forge relationships and trust because participation in the arts is a very powerful tool for change, growth and development.

Bolton at home is a unique model in terms of its partnership with the theatre because it is the only social housing provider with a dedicated arts team, employing 4 arts officers with a combined budget of 65,000 per year to spend on creative engagement initiatives.

Because of the success of community projects run in partnership with the theatre Bolton at home and the Octagon created a more formalised agreement making Bolton at home one of the theatres major sponsors.

Bolton at home now gives the theatre 20k per year to make available 1,800 free tickets for tenants to come and see a play. This also pays for some of the community cohesion work in communities.

Having free access to this cultural offer creates a cohesive environment where a diverse range of people from greater Manchester and beyond come together for that unique shared experience.