25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester: my most famous ‘engagement & empowerment’ project…and why I’ve waited 24 years to publish this story.
Privately, community planning professionals hailed it as a model case study in how to ‘engage, involve and empower’ citizens and communities but, publicly, I didn’t speak about it or write about it out of respect for the victims’ families. 24 years on (and almost 50 years on from when this place first became ‘the House of Horrors’) it’s time to tell the story.
I got a call from my client at Gloucester City Council saying “Can you get down to Gloucester urgently. We’ve got a project for you. It’s a one-off. Needs someone like you to handle this sensitively and creatively”. Intrigued, I jumped in the car and set off from Leeds to Gloucester.
When I got there, the room included the Chief Executive from Gloucester City Council and senior representatives from Gloucestershire County Council and Gloucestershire Police. Even more intriguing.
I was told by the Chief Executive “we thought you were the right person for this project Paul because you and your team are innovative but, at the same time, you’re also ‘a safe pair of hands’…”. I thought ‘wow, I’ll have to get that quote on the CV”!
But then it got serious: “We’d like you to lead a community engagement exercise to decide what to do with the site of 25 Cromwell Street, the former home of the serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West, dubbed the ‘House of Horrors’ after multiple bodies were discovered in the cellar and garden”.
I went away and wrote a proposal, which was accepted, and we began. After an initial media conference to announce the project, it was agreed that I’d meet with all of the victims’ families to check on what options they thought should be ruled out or ruled in, and to explore any other issues that needed to be put on the agenda. Then we’d move to the next phase of engagement with the local community around Cromwell Street.
The media conference was something I’d never experienced before. I’d been part of many media conferences previously, spoken to the media, been interviewed on radio and television, and had much exposure to print media (partly due to having the media-savvy Sir Bob Worcester as one of my early mentors, who arranged for my very first published article in…The Times!). But, I’d never experienced anything like this.
The room was packed to suffocation. At least 300 people in the room, fighting for the ‘best spot’ for the news footage, and to ask questions. We had the British tabloid pack, who I was told had failed to stick to previously agreed protocols, eg around the excavation of the site at Finger Post Field, where Annie McFaul’s body had been buried, with helicopters and motorcycle riders suddenly appearing to try and get the story published ahead of rivals.
There were journalists from several countries, including Belgium which seemed to have a gruesome fascination with serial killers, and several correspondents said they were ‘specialists’ in mass murders, which seemed like a rather sinister area of focus. And, most disturbing was the Japanese film crew, plus we were made aware of a ‘tour’ the Japanese contingent had organised, getting out of the coach in Cromwell Street to take photos like it was a tourist attraction.
I was asked to do a live interview on radio and did so very sombrely, seriously, and sensitively, saying my thoughts were with the victims’ families and that we wanted to hear from everyone affected. When I got back to the office, I listened to the recording and was really pleased that it all came across well and to plan. But then as my interview concluded, I heard the presenter say “Now we’re going over to Professor X in the US, who specialises in these matters” — I thought ‘these matters’? — and he continued: “so tell us Professor, where do the Wests rank in the international league table of serial killers”! It was so deflating, soul-destroying at times like this, but we had a job to do.
I liaised with Gloucestershire Police to set up face-to-face meetings with all of the victims’ families. The wonderful human being Detective Superintendent John Bennett had built deep, mutually respectful relationships with the families and he helped set up our meetings. It was a transformative moment in my life and in my professional practice, in many ways.
One life-and-career-changing moment was realising ‘the power of listening’ which I wrote about and spoke about many years later (I didn’t talk or write about 25 Cromwell Street for many years afterwards out of respect for the families who said ‘every time anything happens, it’s on the news with the same haunting photos’ — and I won’t include any photos of the Wests here).
I realised that in our professional practice (be it research, community engagement, or deliberative & participative democracy) we often forget that our work is fundamentally about listening to people — listening to their ‘stories’, their experiences, their knowledge and wisdom, their views and expectations, their considered conclusions and recommendations, their preferences and priorities, their hopes and fears. But we ‘professionals’ often create structured processes that get in the way of listening.
I had a half day allocated to meet with one family, and I went back later to continue our conversation because I needed to listen some more. In our usual, tightly-scheduled, budgeted projects, we often don’t leave (enough) time for listening, we allocate 4 or even 6 ‘depth interviews’ in a day, so they’re not ‘in depth’ any more. We arrange a ‘deliberative weekend’ and fire 8 presentations at people with 40 minutes allocated to discuss, then move on.
I listened, and listened, and listened some more. I didn’t have the usual long list of questions and topics. I had just four items on one page — tell me your story; what do you think should happen to the site (options? preferences?); what should definitely NOT be an option/what should be ruled out now; and what other issues do we need to take into account.
The ‘please tell me your story’ opener could take several hours, sometimes over multiple sittings, going way beyond a ‘typical’ engagement and empowerment project, but it was absolutely essential. The ‘which options in/out’ part could be lengthy or short — some said “I don’t care what happens to it, as long as it’s not X” or an occasional firm “I think it should be Y”. I probed gently to assess reasons for preferences or non-preferences.
When I got to the ‘other issues’ part, it could range from ‘nothing to add’ to a very long conversation, including some return visits. There was one issue in particular which needed discussing — the concept of a ‘memorial’.
The media had started reporting that the site of 25 Cromwell Street was going to be “turned into a memorial garden”. In fact this was never the plan, no-one wanted it, and it was a much more nuanced issue. But, interestingly, years later, people would Google ’25 Cromwell Street’, pick up this media coverage and confidently say to me “I heard it was turned into a memorial garden”. Another source of ‘Fake News’!
There were a few key things to understand. Firstly, many of the victims’ families were NOT from Gloucester. Their daughters had simply been the victims of a pair of killers who lived in Gloucester and, tragically, they’d been beaten, raped, tortured, killed, dismembered, and buried in Gloucester at 25 Cromwell Street. Apologies if that sentence was painful to read but, after all these years, it’s important not to forget the horror that took place in a house in a community in a city for so long without any action being taken, despite some early abuse and crimes by the Wests, and suspicions being reported ‘to the relevant authorities’ who then did nothing.
So, the concept of having ‘a memorial’ in Gloucester, near to the site of that horror, was in itself horrifying for many of the victims’ families. Some, however, did feel it was appropriate to have a memorial but in what they thought was a suitable location that they could visit for quiet contemplation — some suggested the cathedral.
Also, at the end of one meeting, the mother of one of the victims, still openly grieving, told me that she hadn’t been able to get a gravestone for her daughter because she couldn’t afford it. I fought back my own tears, and reported back to John Bennett and the City Council what I’d witnessed and been told. They immediately addressed that issue.
Much of this project was about ‘blowing myths and assumptions’. A lot of people assumed that I would be going to meet with ‘the family’, with father, mother and siblings all sat around the table or on sofas ‘being interviewed’. But the horror and trauma of what they’d experienced had ripped families apart.
In some cases, I went to three separate locations to meet with mum, and dad and sister. In one case, they were living near me, just outside York. I never knew of course. They weren’t a ‘neat family unit’. They’d all been dealing with grief in their own way, and each individual needed to ‘tell their story’ and give their views, or choose to sum up with a ‘family position’ on some of the options to rule in or rule out.
As with all of our engagement and empowerment projects, this was dynamic and fluid, over a 6-months period, not a neat ‘design-fieldwork-analysis-report’ schedule to be pushed through. All sorts of other issues arose. I recall my first visit to the area, which was eerie, and being shocked to see that next door to 25 Cromwell Street was…a church!
My initial reaction was disbelief. ‘How could this have happened with a church next door?’! But Police, Social Services, Health Services, the local community…everyone had ‘missed it’ or ‘looked the other way’. I met with the church leaders and staff, and they were as devastated as anyone, probably more so, because they were right next door. What a challenge to your faith!
Many of the victims’ relatives talked about the hounding they’d received from the British (tabloid) media, and some overseas media, at times making them feel like victims, at times making them feel deep guilt and shame, combined with sheer helplessness. They also talked about the incredible support they’d had from John Bennett and his team, although in those days counselling and mental health support was not as freely available as it is now. They also said they still lived in fear of the media.
I fed some of this back to my clients (with the appropriate level of privacy and confidentiality, and necessary project reporting). We agreed that we needed to find ‘a role’ for the media. We couldn’t ‘tell them what to do’ of course, and wouldn’t be foolish enough to suggest it, but we could perhaps ‘steer’. So we made an announcement that we’d ‘completed phase one’ among the victims’ families (with some top-level results — see below) and were going to move to ‘phase two’ which would focus very much on the local community living near 25 Cromwell Street, but “we think it’s also important to hear what the wider population of Gloucester think should happen, and maybe the media can assist”.
It worked fairly well in at least giving us some breathing space, although it did lead to some of those red-herring headlines such as “memorial garden”, but the city newspaper, the Gloucester Citizen, did a good job of keeping a conversation going with the wider population.
The main ‘project output’ from that first phase of meetings with the victims’ families was to avoid having anything on the site that was prone to abuse, eg. ‘Fred’s Bar’, a ‘Wests’ Museum’, or even leaving it as a residential property that someone could buy and misuse.
In my early conversations with the City Council, it had already been agreed to demolish 25 Cromwell Street, and 23 next door, to create a space, so we could then engage around ideas for the flattened site, rather than options for a building which had such terrible associations, and which would limit the physical options.
The victims’ families very much supported this decision, and gave more detailed views in some cases about what should be on the site, or not on the site, including what should happen on those parts of the site where the bodies were buried, which had been carefully logged. This actually became the focus for deep thought and deliberation later in the project.
I ended up keeping in touch with some of the victims’ families for many years afterwards, being careful to be highly professional about the relationship but respecting the need of some of those I’d met and listened to wanting to keep in touch, at least for the duration of the project. We’d assured all the families we’d send them our interim reports for comment.
One of the people I met, Marian Partington, sister of Lucy Partington, began to write about her way of coping and beginning a new phase of her life (I remember Marian saying “I used to hate the Wests and wanted them dead, but I realised that made me as bad as them…and I thought ‘you’ve ruined the last 20 years of my life, I’m not going to let you ruin the next 20 years’…”. I closely followed Marian’s pieces in the Guardian:
'You would have been a brilliant aunt'
Dear Lucy, During my pregnancy with Luke, my first child, I bought a length of fabric from Liberty's. A pattern of a…
and other publications, including a more recent book:
If You Sit Very Still by Marian Partington - review
Some years ago, while making a Radio 4 series on forgiveness in private and public life, I interviewed an apple-cheeked…
and then Marian’s work with the wonderful global Forgiveness Project:
The Forgiveness Project
STORIES HAVE THE POWER TO TRANSFORM The Forgiveness Project shares stories of forgiveness in order to build hope…
For the next phase of the project, we briefed the team. We established a local ‘consultation surgery’ as our base, with private meeting rooms. We were open 8am to 6pm on weekdays, and went out door-to-door during and after those hours, but not after dark as it was a ‘seedy’ inner city area with a relatively high crime rate, and we had to think about the safety of our team as well as wanting to give residents maximum opportunity to participate. We opened on Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 4pm, and did more in-home interviews.
Everyone was nervous and a bit suspicious initially, many not wanting to open their doors, but word spread that we were listening, carrying out our work professionally, we were independent, and it was all confidential. Many residents said we were the first people they’d spoken to about 25 Cromwell Street. It was research-and-engagement; it was deliberative and participative democracy; it was community empowerment; and it was therapy (even though I didn’t formally qualify as a counsellor until January 2019!).
And there were some unexpected benefits. We wanted to look after the mental health and wellbeing of the team so we had regular de-briefs. Everyone said they were fine on this project, because they were getting lots of support, but they suggested we have similar ‘check-ins’ and de-briefs on other projects.
It turned out that one member of the team had an existential crisis while working on a commercial consumer research project when exploring reasons for buying particular brands of household goods “because I started thinking ‘why do I buy these brands’ and I thought ‘because my mother bought them’ and I started thinking about my mum and nearly had a breakdown in the middle of a discussion about soap powder”!
At the time, the key lesson there was ‘don’t make assumptions’, including don’t think what seems to be ‘deep-and-meaningful’ social research or community engagement or democracy discussions is actually more important or more stressful than market research on Ariel v Persil!
And it’s relevant to the current COVID19 experience where I’m regularly hearing “one of the benefits of this crisis is that people are regularly checking in with each other in a way they don’t normally do…I hope we can keep it up once we come out of Lockdown and return to ‘the new normal’…”.
Effective engagement and empowerment needs sensitivity and quality, but credibility and impact also needs quantity of participation. In the community engagement around 25 Cromwell Street, the combination of the consultation surgery and the in-home interviews meant that we got input from around three-quarters of local residents.
This is so important. Although it was primarily a qualitative not quantitative exercise, the 75% coverage ensured diversity, technical reliability of the outputs, credibility in the eyes of the community, Council, media, etc. The fact that we’d tried to hear from 100%, and clearly made every effort to provide opportunities to participate to ALL residents meant that the final recommendations had authority and compelling weight.
It makes me think about some of the comments I hear in 2020 from those advocating for Citizens’ Assemblies or Citizens’ Juries as ‘the universal solution’, notably when they’re struggling to make their case for an Assembly or a Jury or, at the other end of the process, struggling to get decision-makers to take notice of the Assembly or Jury recommendations.
No matter how much depth of deliberation there is, at the end of the day it’s just 20–150 citizens and only one ‘unit of analysis’ (ie not 3 Assemblies reaching the same conclusions), often with little or no supporting participation, so it’s relatively easy to ignore or dismiss.
With a wider-participation-and-convergence process, it immediately has more weight. And being able to say three in four citizens participated makes it hard to dismiss and impossible to ignore.
Before documenting the final stages and outcome, I also wanted to note another life-changing moment. I’d grown up with complete respect for the BBC, in a household that cherished the national broadcaster. Even though I’d already witnessed some of the worst excesses of the British tabloid media by this point, I still put the BBC on a pedestal. But that changed here.
A production team from BBC Breakfast approached us and said they wanted to film us. We explained what we were doing, ie CONFIDENTIAL interviews with local residents (and we did actually have some more of the victims’ extended families coming to the consultation surgery).
The BBC team kept insisting they wanted to film us ‘in action’. We again explained that we couldn’t have any filming of us interviewing residents but, before the surgery opened, we’d do a piece-to-camera outside the surgery. They said ‘no, we want to film you once you’re open’. We said ‘no, we don’t want you here once we’re open’. ‘But’, they said, ‘it’s important we have footage of you interviewing someone’. We said no again. Then we had this: ‘Can’t we just have you pretending to interview someone, with one of your staff pretending to be a resident’!!! Now how would that be for credibility in the community and encouraging 75% to participate?!
By now the site had been flattened:
And the patterns were becoming very clear. Local residents respected the wishes of the victims’ families, and were highly sensitive, but they were also highly practical in their thinking. Many pointed out that this was an inner city area, which had its fair share of crime, including muggings, it didn’t have a clear route through to the City Centre, and many used to ‘cut through by the GPs’ surgery’ and end up putting themselves in danger. We started evolving plans for a pathway from Cromwell Street through to the City Centre. Although initial instincts were to ‘build something on the site’, the thinking evolved to ‘maybe have a paved walkway that can be practically useful’.
We continued these discussions with the local community, checked in with the victims’ families, got Council architects and surveyors involved, fleshed out the plans, and had more detailed engagement around every aspect.
We came to collective consensus around having some ‘greening’ so it was a pleasant sight but not an attractive park that would make people want to visit; some flora but not ‘rose bushes’ as that would be associated with Rose West; no seats, as it should be designed as a pathway not a place to stop and sit; and definitely no memorial.
As shown above, it was designed to look as if it it had always been a pathway, rather than something just created, and — to counter the ‘murder tourists’ — essentially nothing to look at, apart from an everyday residential scene, pleasant but nothing to cause anyone to stop.
Emotionally and psychologically, it was thought to be crucial to encouragement ‘movement’ rather than encouraging people to stop, look, and think. It was thought to be part of the ‘healing’ process for any of the victims’ families still in contact with the area, and for the local community, to emphasise not just physical movement but everyone ‘getting back to normal’ and then ‘moving on’ from this dark episode in history.
This was the final design:
And that left one issue to resolve, which was the one issue on which there was not wide agreement — the name of the street. The media had already started running campaigns to change the name, even running competitions on what the name should be changed to (not a great idea, just like ‘Boaty McBoatFace’, when it tends to get suggestions like ‘Fred’s Street’).
Some of the victims’ families said they favoured a name change, but most were incredibly reasonable and sensitive to others’ needs: “I think that’s an issue for the people who live in Cromwell Street”.
Many local residents, and most local councillors, wanted to keep the name, and the winning argument was “Cromwell Street has a long and proud history. It was Cromwell Street long before the Wests lived here and tainted its reputation. We want it to have a long and proud history after the Wests. We want to ‘reclaim’ Cromwell Street”. The City Council approved that decision. The name ‘Cromwell Street’ remains today:
The Cromwell Street engagement and empowerment project was lauded nationally as a model example of how to engage with and empower communities. There was a lot of attention in mainstream media, and I spoke about it privately to many local government and national government clients but — out of respect for the victims’ families and the community trying to heal — I didn’t speak or write about it publicly for many years.
This is the first time I’ve published such a complete case history, as I think 24 years on from the project, and almost 50 years on from the disappearance of those innocent young women, it’s time to honour their memory and respect the wishes of the community to ‘move on’ (albeit some will never achieve that as ‘closure’ is another media myth not supported by evidence).
My lasting memory of the project is a positive one. The first time I visited Cromwell Street, it was a grey, grimy place, a bit intimidating, lots of litter, lots of graffiti, not looking cared for. But, as is always the case, the community were beautiful people. They were scared, worn down by their experience, not hopeful about the future, many thinking of moving, many afraid to step out of their houses.
I returned 6 months after the end of the project to see the walkway with a bit more maturity in its development, and to reflect on the project — professionally and personally, including my own mental health.
Luckily, it was nice weather so the area looked better for that but I also noticed it was spotlessly clean, I couldn’t see any graffiti, and the grass and flower beds were immaculate. I saw a couple of residents picking up a couple of paper wrappers that had blown through. I recognised them. They recognised me. We had a chat.
More people came out. As I walked down the street, several people waved out of the window or came to the door. I was told that many who were thinking of moving out had decided to stay but, also, as one resident concluded “if they stay, that’s good, but if they go that’s good as well because new people will move in and they won’t have that negative chapter in their Cromwell Street lives”.
You can read more about high impact ‘engagement & empowerment’ case studies, and lessons learned, from my later projects, via the link below, with an emphasis on inclusion, having a ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ mentality, and being creative and flexible with fit-for-purpose designs, bringing us right up-to-date with a radical initiative for 100% Digital City in York.
Paul Vittles FMRS FAMI FRSA is a Research Fellow and community engagement pioneer, who has been an advocate for and practitioner of deliberative & participative democracy over the past 35 years.
Paul has worked with governments at all levels in the UK and Australia, with 80 councils as clients (after being the first Research & Engagement Manager with City of York Council). He has been a consultant to the NHS; many arms-length government agencies and regulators; community foundations, charities and not-for-profit organisations; professional societies & member organisations; regulated energy and utilities businesses; corporates and private developers wanting to engage appropriately and effectively with their communities; and many partnerships and alliances comprising combinations of these.
Paul has designed and facilitated thousands of research, consultation, engagement, and democracy projects and initiatives. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Paul led or facilitated many innovative and pioneering face-to-face approaches: including city/community regeneration; new types of school and learning facilities; building health and social care services around service users and carers; involving citizens in traffic and transport planning; and — perhaps most famously — leading the engagement exercise to decide what to do with the site of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester, the former home of the serial killers, Fred and Rosemary West (Paul met with all the victims’ families before leading the team undertaking engagement with the local community).
Paul presented ‘The Role of Research in a Democratic Framework’ to the 1991 Market Research Society (MRS) Conference, and has presented many award-winning papers to research, evaluation and engagement conferences, as well as serving on national task forces, developing and evaluating national policy (from The Patients Charter in the UK to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS, in Australia to national suicide prevention strategies).
Paul was founder and ‘Chief Facilitator’ for ‘ListenHear: The Global Campaign for Effective Listening’ which won the 2011 TEDxSydney competition for “the best idea worth spreading”.
Paul was a TEDxSydney ‘Fast Ideas’ finalist in 2014, speaking to 2,300 people at the Sydney Opera House (and many more live online) about #DigitalLifeSaving — using digital communications technology to save lives. Paul also facilitated the ‘Breakthrough Ideas for Suicide Prevention’ Forum 2013–14, and helped implement some of those ideas.
In 2013–14, Paul also pioneered online research and engagement approaches, challenging 120 clients (from the ABC to the Australian Government to funeral services providers) to identify ‘what can’t be done online’ and then doing it — online!
Paul presented some of these pioneering case studies at the 2014 Australian Market and Social Research Society (AMSRS) Conference (written up by Green Book), and subsequent conferences such as the Information & Innovation Exchange (IIeX) Asia-Pacific.
Since 2013, Paul has designed and facilitated 194 online forums, which is why he baulked at the claims by some democracy advocates, as well as democracy critics, ‘this can’t be done online’.
Paul knows from experience that it CAN all be done online (although flexibility, ‘fit for purpose’, ‘horses for courses’ is always the way it should be) — including the citizens assembly and citizens jury models — and adopts a ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ philosophy for his professional practice as well as his personal life!
These days, Paul’s focus is on transformational change projects — in community development (including a project “to design a new community around the happiness and success of its people”), improving quality of life for older people, optimising mental health and wellbeing for all segments of society, suicide prevention and the Zero Suicide Movement — and facilitating sustainable success as a consultant, coach and counsellor.
For the past 7 years, Paul has had a focus on using digital communications technology to find solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges. He is currently working on projects using data analytics, predictive & prescriptive analytics, real-time behavioural micro-targeting, and augmented intelligence for child protection, safeguarding vulnerable young people, ethical behaviour in large organisations, suicide prevention, and ending loneliness.
Paul’s keynote talks, interactive lectures, and workshop sessions on ‘Facilitating Transformational Change’ are often described as “inspirational as well as educational”, as was the case with the recent guest lecture Paul gave for the full-time MBA students at University of Durham Business School (on Friday 21 February 2020) — the last one before Lockdown!.
Paul is currently running continuous online forums — purpose-designed for ground-up COVID19 feedback, community support, and strategic planning — for a range of clients, including the NHS, the Zero Suicide Alliance, major UK charities, and a premier London arts & cultural entertainment venue which is one of many forced to close with its future threatened. The main focus of this work — for government, charities, commercial organisations, and not-for-profit organisations — is developing and implementing ‘Survive & Thrive’ strategies.