Learn a Living / by James Whitaker

Affordable Housing and Qualified People

Four years ago I had an ambitious idea of how to regenerate abandoned corners of our cities. While ambitious though, the idea was pretty simple. It centred around creating a school that would give young people vocational training in construction trades while rebuilding derelict communities. We met some fascinating people as we explored how to develop this into an actionable plan. But ultimately we realised that it would take a considerable amount of time to develop the idea – more than we could muster in our evenings and weekends – and without any resources to help us we parked it. Two years later Assemble won the Turner Prize for a project that had some similarities to ours and we kicked ourselves for not persevering.

Time tumbled along and I considered our moment to have passed. I've now got young children and work is busy, so my free time, that can be devoted to developing the idea, has reduced even further. I had all but forgotten about it. Then a couple of weeks ago I found this business card buried at the bottom of a draw. I was just about to throw it in the bin when I stopped. The idea behind the card is a good one and what we wanted to achieve is definitely worthwhile. So, rather than discarding the idea for good I thought I would share it here. Maybe someone who reads this will want to pick up the idea and take it further, or maybe we'll find some seed funding to help take the idea forward. Certainly, the idea is of little use if it is kept hidden in a draw.

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I can't remember now what sparked the idea – a snippet on the radio, a conversation with a friend or an email from my parents (they live in Liverpool). Wherever it came from, at its root is a scheme launched by Liverpool City Council in the summer of 2013 to address some of the run down, inner-city terraced houses that lay empty and abandoned across the city. The council planned to sell the houses for £1 each on the condition that they couldn't be sold for 5 years. Successful applicants would renovate the properties and with time this would rejuvenate areas that had been left to fall apart. The scheme has been hugely popular, and recently was the subject of a documentary series on Channel 4.

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The £1 house scheme set me off wondering - is it possible to create an apprenticeship school that would teach young people a skill, and thus a means for earning a living, while simultaneously regenerating areas of a city in desperate need of a boost? At the time I was working for Ron Arad and over lunch breaks I began to develop the idea with my colleague Jessica Barker. Essentially we proposed starting up a school, and this school would buy a street of, say, 30 houses for £1 each. Then over the next educational cycle 30 students would serve their apprenticeships rebuilding these houses. The students could have first refusal on the houses and hopefully a good portion of them would take up the offer of owning a house that they had helped build. Our aim was that at the end of the cycle you would have a group of skilled workers, a rebuilt piece of urban fabric, and a community of people who were now invested in the long term success of the area.

We met with some MPs to discuss our idea and among the most enthusiastic and supportive was George Howarth, the Labour MP for Knowsley, Merseyside. George was very generous with his time and our conversations with him helped evolve our thinking. We also met with Mick Hamill, who was the North of England Director at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). Talking to Mick was pivotal to advancing our idea and also to realising the full extent of what we were proposing. From Mick we learnt the educational parameters of offering an apprenticeship and also the social considerations that we would need to be mindful of. There are numerous large construction companies offering apprenticeships already, and so if you are a keen and reliable 16-24 year old there are apprenticeships available. Problems occur when a potential apprentice isn't reliable, and so in a competitive jobs market they get left behind. Essentially, if we wanted to offer something that others weren't we would have to consider almost a social worker element, that could provide students with the support they need to make a success of their apprenticeship. Mick's assessment of available apprenticeships and who didn't get them maybe only explained part of the problem though. Figures from the Department for Education showed that in 2013 there were significant numbers of 16-24 year olds not in education, employment or training.

 Number of 16-24 year olds not in education employment or training in Q2 2013

Number of 16-24 year olds not in education employment or training in Q2 2013

 Number of Empty Houses per Region in 2012

Number of Empty Houses per Region in 2012

The second area of our idea that developed through our conversation with Mick was what the apprenticeships would need to be. To complete an apprenticeship the apprentice needs to gain experience in a variety of areas. For example it's no good a roofing apprentice spending 3 years working solely on identical, tiled roofs along a street of terraced houses, they need to work on flat roofs, slate roofs, tiled roofs etc.. We would have to make the school operate across multiple sites to ensure everyone got the breadth of experience they need, or partner with other construction sites where our apprentices could gain additional experience as required.

So, we got this far and realised that we were never going to get it all off the ground working on our own, in our spare time. The development of a business plan with accurate cost projections, a syllabus that co-ordinated classroom learning with site activity, and an infrastructure that facilitated the execution of it all was going to take the full-time dedication of a team of people. The additional layer of thinking that Jessica and I could bring to the table is our architectural minds. We wanted to help masterplan the renovation work so that the regeneration takes root and becomes a functioning element of a modern city.

Nearly 5 years later, I look back at this and it still feels like a project worth pushing forward. We still have crumbling portions of our cities in need of life bringing back to them, we still have a shortage of affordable housing, and we still have unemployment. This seemed like an idea worth sharing.