Friday, June 27, 2008

Billy Elliot Country

Easington, Co Durham is the place where they shot Billy Elliot. A few miles up the road at Seaham is where Michael Caine was despatched into the sea in 1971s Get Carter.

Back then this was coal country. Today it is the UKs fourth poorest district.
I am here to meet Kate Welch OBE, founder and CEO of Acumen Trust. Set up in 2003, Acumen exists to get people back into the ecomomy either as employees or, interestingly, as entrepreneurs.

The key to their model is engagement. To this end Acumen run everything from leek shows (for the old miners), pamper nights (for their daughters and wives) and the local entry to Britain in Bloom.

This sounds odd but for many of Acumen's clients it is the beginning of the long journey to economic independence. Because the trust engendered through this work enables Acumen's staff to work out a personal package of support back to work.

Driving around the district, Kate takes me past a cake shop set up by one of her clients and then to a magnificent but derelict old school building which Kate is planning to turn into Possibility Place, a centre for enterprise and personal growth. A natural risk-taker, Kate has already sunk £70k into plans before even securing the site. Not that she is worried. Because Kate is that rare thing : a social visionary who combines a sharp understanding of the political world with a practical intelligence around getting things done.

While listed in the Journals 500 Most Influental People in the north east, Kate wasn't selected as a social enterprise ambassador, to her chagrin. Couldn't help but agree. Being in the north east doesn't help. its a bit like being in another country. The Geordie Nation indeed.

Kate drives me through Halton a village just outside Peterlee. Here 1400 people live. Take oaway the young and old and you are down to six hundred or so of working age. Of these 400 are on incapacity. A black spot within a black spot.

However its not that there are no jobs, Kate tells me. The industrial estates of Peterlee are but a mile away. The problem is that the jobs are too high level. The best thing to have happened in recent years, she tells me, has been the arrival of Tesco Extra. Lots of jobs stacking shelves and pushing trolleys.

As we whizzed past the old Easington colliery head which closed in 1993, Kate told me the tale of how Acumen had got a bloke into work who was sixth generation unemployed. From a long line workless since the 1930s. David Freud and James Purnell would love Acumen. They need to come here.

Our journey ends at Durham station. In the course of an hour touring the towns and villages of East Durham I have not seen a single high street brand. No KFC or Blockbuster. It is a world that noughties capitalism forgot. You would think this idyllic in some way. But this is not Slow Food country. And the absence of familiar names was discomforting. It implicitly said that these areas weren't worth putting even a fucking McDonalds into. Depressing. But Kate was anything but. I boarded the train in the imposing shadow of Durham cathedral feeling inspired by her.

Twenty minutes later I am Newcastle arriving at the offices of Futurebuilders England. As a recently appointed non Exec I am here to meet the Operations Director Peter Deans and to say hello to staff. My agenda is to get a grip on the way FBE works and form my own assessment of the issues.

Really impressed by Peter. He combines a sensitive personal style and with a sharp and realistic sense of the issues and, I guessed, an ability to get tough when he needed to. He is the only remaining senior manager from FBE 1 but I can see why we are so keen to keep him. He is the guarantor of the operation which is, for the most part, very strong. Met all the staff which felt a bit bizarre, as though I was a visiting dignitary. But people seemed pleased to see an investment committee member and it was good to talk to people.

Evening began with a birthday party for 8 year old Annie, daughter of my old college friend Tony Dabb now a teacher in Gateshead. After lots of diet coke and birthday cake I went across to the world Forth to meet the lovely Hannah Eyres, CEO of Keyfund, another Impetus charity. Our real bond is that we are both Bolton fans. Her Dad is very close to the chair man of BWFC, Phil Gartside, so I get all the behind the scenes goss.Newcastle is a great place to drink. The wet trade may be waning elsewhere but not here. For atmosphere and up-for-it-ness Ncle can't be beaten.

Wake up without a hangover (to immense relief) in the house of my old tutor Martin Harrop. We spend breakfast talkng about genocide. His theory is that people will do anything if the state gives them cover for it, as in Rwanda.

Plenty coming through onmy piece in the Guardian. Stephen Bubb to say he thinks he third-agrees with me but that I need to be more realistic about the need to attract quality people into the sector. I third-agree with him too.

Brain half dead as I pass through northern England on the train. I used to relish being away but not now the kids are here. I am missing Wilf a lot. I am worried that I haven't given him as much time as I gave my firstborn, Ruby. I slowed down when she was born and she became my obsession.

By contrast, I have actually worked harder since Wilf came along I December. I have this uneasy sense that I have missed out on him somehow. That he has languished in my peripheral vision while I have been launching books, writing articles and raising funds. Sudddenly feeling a bit emotional.

Time to stop writing.

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