Not your traditional leftie

Andrew runs his own engineering company out of a two-storey building tucked behind a block of flats on a housing estate. In the workshop on the ground floor a couple of his employees are tinkering with small circuit boards. Upstairs two offices lead from the top of the staircase. In the general office I’m introduced to Charmaine who asks if I would like a drink. At one end of this room is a long work bench with more circuit boards connected to boxes of unfamiliar electronic equipment. This, Andrew tells me, is his personal research and development department.

Before we sit down to chat in the second office which Andrew and his wife Katrina share, I can see this is not a conventional office environment. “So how many dogs do you have?” I ask.

“Katrina and I have got two: Flora and Eric. Kevin brings Barney most days and Jamie brings Dylan. Sometimes George will bring Charlie. But Charmaine never brings her dog in, do you?” he says, as Charmaine pops in to ask about sugar.

“He’s a bit nervous, isn’t he?” says Andrew. “He doesn’t like crowds.”

Once we are settled with our mugs of tea Andrew tells me something of his career. Armed with a degree from the University of Essex he’s spent many years moving around the country involved, in one capacity or another, in the management of engineering companies.

“I worked in Manchester for a time,” he says. “In Gorton, opposite the car auction place.”

“On Hyde Road?” I say.  “Yes, I know where you mean.”

He and his young family moved to South Devon with his work in the ’90s. “This area was like a mini-Silicon Valley then,” he says, “it was enjoying what’s called a ‘opto-electronic’ boom.”

Apparently one electronics company in Paignton employed 5,000 skilled workers (the town has a population of just 48,000), until the boom flipped to bust and, within a week, that company had a workforce of just 500. Like the pit villages and steel towns before it, reliant on a single industry or even a single employer, the town was devastated. Andrew headed a satellite of an international supplier which was in the supply chain. It was hit hard.

“I was told to sack everyone,” he says, “close down the factory and then sack myself!” As part of his severance deal Andrew negotiated the purchase of the firm’s van, some tools, a computer and, most importantly, a small contract with one of his most valued customers.

“I was asked to design a timer for a washing machine,” Andrew recalls, “and soon I was designing and making all sorts of coin-operated equipment.” That was over ten years ago. His biggest market now is landlords of student properties who install boxes next to their tumble dryers and washing machines.

I make some movement that offends Flora and she snaps at me. “Flora!” shouts Andrew, half-heartedly. I move on with my questions.

“How did you get involved with YES?”

“A few years ago our three boys, all enthusiastic musicians, wanted to go busking in Brixham town centre to supplement their pocket money. We weren’t that keen but compromised…” – life with teenagers – “and said they could as long as the proceeds went to charity.

“Within a few hours they had raised over £100 for the local hospice and made quite an impression. Formal bookings followed and they raised a chunk of money within a few months. They were then unexpectedly invited to the Brix Awards, that was back in 2005, and were presented with an award for their charity work.”

Their eldest son, James, subsequently became a young volunteer followed by his brothers. Katrina was invited to become a trustee and then, at an annual general meeting of the charity and without warning, Andrew found himself nominated and seconded as chair of trustees.

It was a good choice: he and his family were immersed in the charity and so could see how it benefitted the town’s young people; he was his own boss, able to put in the days and days of additional lobbying, application writing and unseen administration; and, most importantly, his heart was in the right place.

“I used to think I was a traditional leftie, but now I think I’m more of an anarchist,” he admits, “but not the bomb-throwing kind… I’ve just become more disillusioned with the political process over the years.”

I ask about the NESTA project, whether NESTA themselves would consider, now that it’s over, that their money has been well spent.

“They gave us £150,00 to run the project. We must have had a couple of hundred people either directly or indirectly involved, probably more. If you think about it purely in terms of the cost savings from the health and social care budgets alone, then it’s been hugely beneficial.”

Andrew shares some stories of people involved with the Challenge, people of all ages who were facing difficult times in their lives and feeling emotionally isolated.  Since their involvement, they have been able to reconnect with their families and community.  “You can’t put a price tag on that,” he says.

Andrew is very clear about the benefits of not only the Challenge but about the Brixham YES project generally. “It’s to do with prevention and early intervention,” he says. “If someone is on a particularly destructive path and we manage to divert them then there are all sorts of things that aren’t going to happen.

“They’re potentially not going to end up in a young offenders institution, costing £45,000 a year. They’re potentially not going to get drunk or high and hit someone else in a road accident. Their potential victim therefore won’t lose their job, need disability benefit and, in turn, their children won’t be adversely affected. All these things aren’t going to happen because that young person came down to The Edge, sat down and did a bit of woodwork with Sean, or was taught how to use a lathe and kept on coming rather than going down a different path.

“We can look back at our own lives and see there are lots of forks in the road, lots of turning points. If you can create a turning point for a young person, and nudge them in the right direction, then you know you are doing good.

“I know for my own son, James, that going to YES was a turning point. He failed the 11-plus and went to school across the water in Dartmouth. That might have been idyllic – a lovely ferry trip to school each day – but all his mates lived in Dartmouth and so he became isolated back here in Brixham.

“Going to YES, completely changed him. He was a young volunteer, learnt to play the guitar, became a trustee and organised band nights with new friends. He is now at university and plays with his brother in a relatively successful band in Reading.

“I really believe YES change the direction of his life. Who’s to say if he hadn’t done then maybe he wouldn’t have gone to university and might have ended up as one of those kids who sits in their room and doesn’t want to come out.”

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