Landlords in London and Bolton are running exchange trips for young tenants. Helen Clifton joins a group from the capital as they get a taste for life ‘up north’ to find out why
Elliott Deplessis takes a picture of his huge safety shoes with a smart phone as he enters the Warburtons bread factory in Bolton, while the rest of the group of young people giggle at the hairnets they have to wear.
Mr Deplessis, a 20-year-old trainee youth worker, and the three other young men who are about to embark on their tour of doughy delights have never been to Bolton before. Their four-day visit between 31 July and 3 August, during which they stayed at a Holiday Inn, was their first experience of life ‘up north’.
The tour of one of the northern town’s biggest employers - which churns out 350 loaves every seven minutes - is just one of many memories Mr Deplessis will take back to his native Lewisham from the exchange trip to Bolton, organised by his local landlord Phoenix Community Housing.
Phoenix tenant and A-level IT student Andrew Holland, 18, was impressed by the warmth of Bolton people. ‘It’s great to get a sense of a different community, see a new place and have a new experience,’ he says. ‘Even though we are different we can mix together.’
The Lewisham group, made up of two Phoenix tenants and two apprentices from local youth training organisation Be Totally You, were immersed in northern culture, enjoying a traditional chippy tea - fish and chips - and a trip to Blackpool. They also visited Bolton at Home’s network of Urban Care and Neighbourhood centres, where they attended employment workshops.
‘The exchange is about getting young people out of their area, getting some shared experiences and seeing that there is more than just the area where they live,’ explains Joel Fowler, a youth worker with Phoenix.
‘They can be quite insular. They come home, they shut the door, and they stay within a two-mile radius of where they live. But this has opened their eyes to just how different other parts of the country are.’
Dubbed ‘From Eastenders to Coronation Street’, the scheme was first conceived in June by executives from 6,500-home Phoenix and 17,967-home Bolton at Home after meeting a Swedish landlord keen to start an exchange with them.
‘We thought it would be easier to start with a pilot here in the UK,’ explains Jon Lord, chief executive of Bolton at Home. ‘If that was a success, we would look at bringing other housing associations in and extending it abroad.
‘The exchange aims to help the young people see what options there are in terms of employment and build their self-esteem, which, for them to get into work, is one of the key ingredients.’
Meanwhile, only one of their exchange partners, four teenage girls from Bolton who were picked after taking part in a local scheme to enhance life skills, had been to London before.
One of the girls thought their two-and-a-half hour train journey to the capital on 16 July would take all day. They stayed in Greenwich for four days. As well as visiting tourist sites like the Tate Modern, both groups also met their local MPs in the Houses of Parliament. By the end of the trip, half the girls didn’t want to return.
Law student and Bolton at Home tenant Rebekah Lomax, 17, says the exchange ‘was a great chance to have new experiences and to go to London’. ‘The London Eye was amazing,’ she says.
She adds that her trip to the capital made her appreciate how friendly her home town really is.
Pearl Burgess, a health development worker based on the Breightmet estate where the girls live, says it’s important for them to leave their comfort zone. ‘They all got on with the four boys really well. It’s been a real success,’ he says.
Mr Deplessis says his highlight was a visit to Bolton Lads and Girls Club. ‘Its 50p to go to the gym and £1 for a boxing session. That just doesn’t happen in London; you’d have to sign up to a leisure centre. But that is exactly what I want to achieve in my own youth club, so that different abilities [to pay] aren’t discriminated against. It was inspirational.’
Phoenix covered costs of the £2,000 programme through its community initiative budget, while Bolton at Home used regeneration funds.
Now the pilot has been successful, plans have been made to run the Lewisham-Bolton exchange twice a year. Phoenix has secured £6,000 of European Union funding for future trips, and Bolton at Home has committed a similar amount.
The partnership has also been expanded to include three more landlords; Merseyside and Cheshire-based 12,500-home organisation Plus Dane, along with 8,490-home Poplar HARCA and 3,058-home Tower Hamlets Community Housing, both of east London. All five partners have equally contributed towards a £2,000 coordination fee to organise future exchanges, both nationally and in Sweden, to Rochdale Housing Initiatives - a social enterprise with members including Rochdale Council and its arm’s-length management organisation Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, which works towards improving housing choice for residents and to tackle worklessness.
An existing exchange between Romanian and Bolton youngsters, which involves 12 young people from the Bolton area and 12 from Romania being given the opportunity to experience working and living in another country, could also be extended.
‘We are giving young people the opportunity to do something they would never normally do. Many may not have been abroad before, so it helps give them confidence,’ explains Mr Lord.
The partnership will also run exchanges with staff and board members, with UK workers staying with hosts in Sweden for up to a month, and vice versa. Board members would also travel to partner meetings.
It seems the organisers can take away just as much from the exchanges as the young people whose horizons they set out to broaden. Beverley Ejimoke, director of Be Totally You in London, for example, is brimming with enthusiasm about what she saw at the Bolton at Home’s UCAN centres. She agrees that the exchange has been great for professional development.
‘I was blown away. I’m going back with lots of ideas that I want to try and implement in Lewisham.’