AN innovative Southend project has just been shortlisted for a prestigious National Learning Disability Award.

The vegetable garden developed jointly by Project 49 in partnership with the Railway Hotel, is an activities centre for adults with learning disabilities. It is a finalist in the Citizenship Category of the awards.

Winners will be announced at a ceremony in Birmingham on Friday, May 16.

The special project was initiated by Graham Burnett, a staff member at Project 49. It all began when he discovered from Dave Dulake, the landlord of the Railway Hotel in central Southend, that the pub’s garden needed attention.

Mr Burnett suggested Project 49 could create a raised garden to help service users learn about growing fruit, flowers and vegetables and enjoy the chance to work in a team.

Mr Dulake loved the idea and allowed him to take a corner of the garden for the project. To help pay for it, Graham ran a fundraiser gig at the pub with local bands giving their time free.

People from Project 49 spent time at the garden learning gardening skills. They mixed with pub regulars and other project volunteers and got to know each other.

The project helped people with learning disabilities to develop social skills in a real life environment with support and understanding on hand.

Carol Cranfield, Southend Council’s group manager in the safeguarding and community teams, said: “This innovative project is a positive practical example of community cohesion in action.

“I am very proud of my team for this inspirational venture and am delighted that the judges have recognised it too, by shortlisting it for this national award.

“The garden is flourishing, and many lives have been positively affected. Service users now feel confident about using the pub for a night out and regulars are confident when interacting with people with learning disabilities.”

Mr Dulake said: “I think it’s a fantastic thing. It completely fits in with our outlook, and all credit to Graham and his team. “They have transformed what was essentially a piece of waste ground into something really special.”