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When Darren met John

When housing association maintenance technician Darren Wilkinson agreed to shadow housing minister John Healey for a day, he didn’t anticipate the whirlwind tour ahead. Martin Hilditch tried to keep up.

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John Healey strides into Paula Hackett’s house, surrounded by a phalanx of local politicians, public relations officers and community workers.

The housing minister doesn’t blink as enough people to make up a rugby team follow him as he traipses through the house, relieved to be out of the miserable winter weather. Mr Healey is clearly in his element - beaming at Home Group tenant Ms Hackett and asking her about the difference her new home has made to her life. The politicians, PRs and community workers are all smiles too as they squeeze into the front room. With all the suits and smart clothes cramped together it resembles a particularly well-dressed house party.

Only Darren Wilkinson looks slightly uncomfortable. A maintenance technician with Guinness Northern Counties, he’s there on Mr Healey’s invitation - after presenting Mr Wilkinson with the Inspirational Colleague award at last year’s UK Housing Awards, Mr Healey suggested he spend a day with him. While the group around him are clearly used to this kind of thing, Mr Wilkinson has a different reaction.

‘You feel rude walking round someone’s home,’ he says quietly. ‘I just hope the lady’s carpets have survived this many people tramping through.’

It should perhaps come as no surprise that the softly spoken Mr Wilkinson’s first reaction is to think about Ms Hackett’s welfare. After all, the award judges did describe his story as ‘a touching journey of altruistic endeavour and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the current and next generation of tenants’. Outside of the day job he helps run the Dreamscheme project, in which he deploys his technical ability to teach young people practical skills to help them get work. He has also trained a group of 12 to 16-year-olds to complete a 150-mile bike ride - and you can bet he wiped his feet on the doormat when he arrived home.

So what is he learning from his day with Mr Healey? At first Mr Wilkinson seems somewhat shell-shocked by the pace of the housing minister’s life. The duo have already stopped off in the House of Lords before arriving at the Rayners Lane estate at 10am to inspect the impact large-scale regeneration of the area has had on residents. Mr Healey hurtles around the estate like there is no tomorrow, taking in not only Ms Hackett’s home, but a building site and a new community centre too.

‘What’s great about getting out and about is that you see what the decisions you take really mean,’ he enthuses, mid-step. He whisks along at a rapid pace, leaving the gaggle of community members and local politicians struggling to keep up.

As we trail after the housing minister, Mr Wilkinson talks enthusiastically about his work with the Dreamscheme. He’s also clearly fascinated by this rare insight into Mr Healey’s life - ‘I had a coffee in the House of Lords this morning. It’s not a bad start to the day.’ But it’s equally obvious that he wouldn’t swap with the minister full time. ‘I sometimes think I’ve got a hectic day,’ he muses. ‘From what I’ve seen he’s got a very hectic one.’

With that he’s ferried off to a private meeting between Mr Healey and local residents and politicians. Inside Housing catches up with them a short time later at the House of Commons As they pose for pictures beneath Big Ben, they chat about their day-to-day working lives. Derbyshire-based Mr Wilkinson states that he typically works a 40-hour working week, but then there is the community work on top of that.

‘I would probably do 70 to 75 hours here,’ Mr Healey says, gesturing at the House of Commons. ‘Then I go home to my work in the constituency.’

Despite the hours, both men clearly love their jobs. ‘I get to meet such a range of people,’ Mr Healey states. ‘We deal with such different issues.’

‘That’s why I like working on estates,’ Mr Wilkinson says, just as enthusiastically. ‘You never know what you’re going to come across. Nobody wants to be stuck in a factory.’

Mr Healey begins to plan his afternoon - Mr Wilkinson will accompany him to most events but not the weekly update on plans for the reform of the housing subsidy system.

As they turn to leave, the award-winning maintenance technician is clearly already inspired. ‘We try to give youngsters ownership of where they live,’ he says. ‘You try to motivate the kids to say “you can do things”. Just think what they can do if I can come here.’

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