“I’m fed up working for a few pennies here and there, trying to make a tenner to help us through the week. I want to be making enough to take out a mortgage on a house. I could go out and get a job tomorrow, but I don’t want a job, I want a career.”
Chris is 25 next week and has been making money from cutting other people’s grass for the last ten years, on and off.
“At 15 I’d wander round with my strimmer, trying to make a few quid.”
Now, for the first time, he’s got some support and is about to make a step change in his business.
Born in Scotland and living in Bolton since he was nine, things haven’t always gone well for Chris.
He moved houses and schools a fair bit when he was younger. “I was a naughty child,” he admits, “a bit rude. I got kicked out of one school and then another.” He ended up at a pupil referral unit from where he got an English and maths GCSE and some IT qualification.
“When I was 15 I got kicked out of my mum’s and moved in with my auntie, which didn’t go well. I started sofa-surfing and for six months lived down there” – he waves his arm in the direction of town – “in a tent. When I was 17 I got my own place, found a job but blew all my money and ended up with massive debts.”
Things seem to settle down for Chris when he met his girlfriend. They now have a six- and four-year-old. “So things are on the up?” I ask
“Yeah, they are.”
Chris, Mick and I are sitting in the middle of Vanessa’s upstairs office. The UCAN is so busy today there just isn’t another available space. “I love it when we’re running at capacity,” says Vanessa before she leaves us to it and heads next door for some high-level meeting.
Retired policeman Mick works for Bright Direction Training, set up a few years ago by Jamie MacGregor, an entrepreneur who started out studying criminology.
“I retired from the cops after 32 years, decorated my house five times, got bored, decided to go back to work so went back to school and got a teaching degree.
“I’m 63 now,” says Mick “and Jamie is 31. When people see us together they think he works for me, but it’s the other way round. We do a lot of employability training and run courses on leadership management, that sort of thing.”
“And how long have you been helping Chris for now?” I ask.
“Only for the last couple of months although the funding means we’re able to help for up to 12 months,” he say, “We’ve bought him a lawnmower. How can you be a landscape gardener if you haven’t got a lawnmower? One of the major difficulties of self-employment with someone like Chris is that you might be willing and able, you might have a lot of drive and energy but he has no working capital, none whatsoever. And if you’re on benefits, then how can you access any sort of tools or equipment?”
“They’re not available to you,” concurs Chris. “They’re really not available to you.”
“And there doesn’t seem to be any route into that,” continues Mick. “Some people can access some pots of funding but Chris doesn’t fit the profile for any of those and this is where this Warburtons funding can be very useful.”
Although arranged through Bolton at Home I know that the support Chris gets from Bright Direction is actually funded by Warburtons, the family-owned bakers based in Bolton, so I ask Mick how that works...
… continued in… Building blocks of legitimacy
….continued from “I don’t want a job, I want a career.”
“Warburtons, as far as I know, have always been interested in supporting the community that sustains them, so to speak. In Bolton, in particular. They’ve been heavily involved with Bolton Wanderers over the years and have done lots and lots of social enterprise-type projects. My understanding is they have pockets of funding they’re prepared to invest across their communities,” says Mick.
“The idea for our project is to support some Bolton at Home clients through this self-employment project. So we’re working with about 10 local people who might have been long-term unemployed or have some other barriers that stop them moving on.
“Warburtons are not looking for massive outcomes, and they’re not expecting all 10 people to suddenly become self-employed and self-sufficient. What they are looking for is the journey, for these individuals to make some progress.”
“They’re being realistic about what can reasonably be achieved,” I suggest.
“Very much so,” says Mick, “and Chris, at the moment, is a roaring success.”
“So, how does it work?” I ask Chris, “Are you still on benefits?”
“Yes,” he says, “but that’s because I work for less than 16 hours a week. A lot less. I have to declare each week to the JobCentre advisor how much I have worked in case it affects my money.”
“We’re trying to gradually move people like Chris into self-employment so they can eventually come off benefits,” explains Mick. “It’s Catch-22, the lad’s got the get up and go to find the work but doesn’t earn enough to support himself.
“We’re putting in place what I call the building blocks of legitimacy, so he’s got a firm footing from which to build his business. We’ve sorted him out with insurance, got a load of leaflets printed – they’re in the boot of my car, Chris, I’ll give them to you later – bought him tools, with the hope he can build a client base that will sustain him over the winter.”
“There’s always plenty to do in the winter,” says Chris.
“And who, typically are your customers?” I ask.
“Households mainly,” he says, “and some businesses. Having insurance will be a big help with the businesses. Schools and churches won’t let you near the place unless you’ve got public liability insurance. But I mostly try the posh houses, with big gardens.”
“But where?” I ask, knowing there aren’t that many posh houses in Breightmet.
“Some round here,” says Chris, “but I will go further afield.”
“Tell him how you get your equipment around,” says Mick.
“I pull it along on a little box cart I’ve made because I don’t want to ruin the lawnmower, it’s only got plastic wheels. Sometimes I’ll go as far as Farnworth.”
I’m not familiar with the distances. “How far is that?” I ask.
“About four or five miles. It would take me about an hour and a half walking there and back.”
“And how much do you charge? What’s your hourly rate?”
“For my regular clients it’s £5 an hour, but generally it’s £7.50, but if I’m going that far, I’ll try and get a day’s work to make it worth my while.”
“Chris finds pricing difficult,” says Mick.
“That’s when I talk to these guys. They can help me out with all those gaps I’m missing. Sometimes I just ring them up and ask them random questions. It’s good to have someone to talk to, and if they don’t know the answers they’ll go out of their way to find them for me.”
“I haven’t told you this yet,” Mick says to Chris, “but I have a pal who lives near me and he’s a landscape gardener. He started off much the same way as you’re doing and now he has four or five people working for him. He’s doing all right. Anyway, he’s agreed to talk to you and give you some advice about the next steps.”
Chris smiles and nods his approval.
Got a garden within cart-dragging distance of Breightmet? Love 4 Lawns is on 07808 151 390
“No sugar, but quite milky for me, please.”
“I don’t make many cups of tea,” says Richard, searching for tea bags at the back of his kitchen cupboard. “I can’t normally cope with the organisation of it. I’m only managing now because you’re prompting me.”
I remember now. When I sat with Richard at his Work Capability Assessment some months ago he mentioned that his ADHD affected even the smallest of tasks. His addiction to cannabis and alcohol wouldn’t have helped either.
Richard lives alone in one of a couple of dozen housing association flats that surround a converted nursing home set in large, pleasant gardens. “How long have you lived here?” I ask.
“I moved from Preston about a year ago, to get away from the madness,” he says, “forgetting that the madness was actually me.”
“I like that line,” I say. “I’ll use that.” We both laugh.
Richard went into detox a few weeks after the ATOS assessment – to come off the alcohol and cannabis – but has since had notification that, in the opinion of his assessors, he is fit for work.
“They basically said that because I volunteer for two hours a week at the UCAN then I should be able to work. It feels as if I am being punished for my honesty in telling them about the volunteering. I don’t want to lie to them.”
“I’m no expert,” I say, “but I think what you need right now is some support, never mind the hassle of appealing against the decision. You’re going in the right direction and, in a year or so, you’d be much better placed to look for work.”
We’re in his sitting room now, the TV on mute. “So how was detox?” I ask.
“It was a struggle,” he says, “there was a lot of shaking, retching and sweating for three weeks but I got through it.”
“And now you’re effectively doing your rehab back in your own flat?”
Richard nods as he lights his roll-up. “I have to say that after 20 years of constantly using, I do miss it.”
“That’s to be expected isn’t it?”
“I suppose so. But it’s like the cannabis and alcohol have a voice and are constantly trying to draw me back. It’s hard to shut my head up. I have to put music on or go for a walk just to distract it. Sometimes It refuses to be distracted. It can be quite frustrating.”
“And what support are you getting?”
Richard says he goes to a couple of groups with his local drug and alcohol team as well as with Alcoholics Anonymous. “And everyone at the UCAN is very supportive,” he says, genuinely. “But it’s hard, very hard. It had such a hold over me. It controlled me, literally. It controlled what time I ate, what time I went to the toilet, what time I went to bed, if I could go to bed. And now there’s a massive void.”
“Yes, but think of all the things you can do to fill that void,” I suggest.
“Which I am doing, quite successfully.” Richard, who loves the outdoors, has joined a walking club. “Maybe I should give myself a pat on the back for that.”
There’s a large carrier bag from the chemists on the sofa next to him.
“Is that your medication?” I ask.
Richard pulls out a number of jumbo-sized blister packs, each compartment filled with tablets and capsules of different colours and shapes. “Does the pharmacist organise all these for you?”
“Yeah, because of my ADHD.”
“And what are you on?” Richard reels off a list of seven or eight medications and the conditions which they treat.
“I have to take one… two… three… ” he counts the contents of several doses, “twenty-four… twenty-five… about thirty tablets a day. As well as Disulfiram, the anti-booze drug which makes you very ill if you intake any alcohol.”
“And have you taken this morning’s tablets?”
“No, actually I need to take them… right now.” He gets a glass of water from the kitchen.
“It’s a good job I’m here,” I say as he fills the palm of one hand with tablets.
“Yes, it is a good job you are here, actually.”