Coalfields Special 3: Merthyr’s Enginehouse offers hope to a new generation

Rhys David investigates Marshy’s world at the Pant and Dowlais Boys and Girls Club

Late afternoon in Dowlais in the school holidays and all is quiet. There are no youngsters scorching up behind on BMXs, no knots of youths outside the chip shop or the convenience store. Where are they all? At home helping their mothers with the cooking? Busy doing homework? Heads down with self-improvement manuals?

Quite a few are in the Engine House, a giant brick building the size and height of a small cathedral which now acts as headquarters for the Pant and Dowlais Boys and Girls Club which was founded 24 years ago. Welcome to Marshy’s world, the institution that 60-year-old Paul Marshallsea, a former coal merchant and now football coach and referee, has turned into a haven for young people. They are aged from six years upwards and occupy the last remaining vestige of  what was once the biggest ironworks in the world, exporting more than 180,000 tons of rails a year.

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust in Wales

Three early evening seminars to debate the work of the Trust and the future of community regeneration in Wales are being organised by the IWA in Merthyr, Neath and Wrexham on Monday 14th, Tuesday 15th, and Wednesday 16th November. For more information about the seminars and to register to attend, which is free, click here. The IWA’s Review of the work of the Trust can be found here.

Tomorrow: John Osmond reports on a social enterprise that is challenging a culture of grant dependency.

Marshy, as he likes to be called, became involved with the club in 2000 after seeing the impact on his own family of  the drug and other temptations into which young people in the area were being drawn. In 2006, six years after local manufacturer, OP Chocolates, stopped using the cavernous building for storage, and after persuading a variety of funders, including the local authority, to back him, he was able to move the club into a newly-refurbished home that had been made watertight and free of the rats and pigeons it used to harbour.

Since the official opening by Prince Charles, the Engine House has grown to host a large and impressive array of activities embracing young people not just from the neighbouring communities of Pant and Dowlais but from other parts of Merthyr Tydfil, including the remoter communities of Bedlinog, Fochriw, Gurnos and Gelli Deg as well as the town itself. The centre is open six afternoons and evenings a week, and during school holidays in the day as well. On an average evening it can be home to more than 100 children, rising to 200 on a Saturday.

Mini-buses and larger 38 and 52 seater buses bring in the children for free from distant parts. For £1 a visit they can take part in football, basketball and netball training sessions, join one of 25 teams, play pool, borrow DVDs or books, make films, and use the computers, Wiis, PS3s or X-Boxes. A £11,000 collapsible stage and a £9,400 professional dance floor make it possible to offer dance and drama classes. There are guitar, drum and cookery lessons as well as a café.

Young people from the centre have participated in more than 20  community gardening projects, brightening up the area or tidying the gardens at local old peoples’ homes. An allotment at Dowlais Top grows seasonal fruit and vegetables which are sold through the Engine House farm shop. Now a small area at the back of the building is being developed as an onsite allotment for younger children. One post at the centre is funded by Environment Wales.

There are trips, too, to Dinefwr Castle, Big Pit, Aberdulais Falls, St. Fagans, Slimbridge, the opera and various nature events, organised in some cases as rewards for the efforts the young people put into various community activities. Adventure trips have taken in overnight stays on Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire and camping on Gower. Soon 12 new mountain bikes will arrive to enable more youngsters to combine a ride along local bike trails with history lessons on the area’s extensive industrial heritage. Young people from the club have also participated in German exchange programmes and visited Disneyland Paris. As the club’s website has it:

“Our objectives are to provide a facility within the local community where children and young people can participate in sport, leisure and environmental activities in a fun, stimulating and safe environment and when we have their attention then to home in on the other aspects that affect their daily lives such as drugs, alcohol, teenage pregnancy, healthy living and job training.”

The club now employs 20 full time and part-time staff, many of whom previously attended as children and who now have gained youth or social work qualifications. Other young people who cannot get work or college places have enrolled at the centre for volunteer work and are able to pick up valuable training in a variety of skills as well as hands-on experience, thus improving their CVs.

Marshy, a tough disciplinarian, has a simple philosophy. Children get into trouble and start on the downward path that can lead to drug-taking, truancy and teenage pregnancy because they are bored, particularly in the summer holidays. His motto is, “Better a fence at the top of the cliff than an ambulance at the bottom”. The club’s approach is to leave the children too exhausted and exhilarated from exciting activities to get into trouble.

However, as a strong character Marshy has had his own difficulties with both the local authority and the local Communities First partnerships. One result has been  funding gaps and a threat of closure in early 2011. He became unpopular with the local authority when trying to cut through red tape that made it difficult to lease the building and get activities going. He has been banned from local Communities First meetings because of the insistence with which he pressed his demands for money. Funders have expressed concerns about governance and financial management at the project. Lack of Communities First and local authority support resulted in the Welsh Government withholding funding until a late date for the current financial year.

The calm in the middle of the storm, which saw young people from the centre threatening to protest outside the Welsh Government’s offices in Merthyr, has been the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and, in particular, its Programme Manager Alun Taylor, who has been one of Marshy’s wisest and strongest supporters. The Trust has been able to look beyond the rivalries that have often bedevilled co-operation between voluntary bodies, local authorities and powerful personalities in the Valleys. Most importantly, it was the first funder to venture into the project, setting an examnple which made it easier for others such as the local authority and the Big Lottery to follow. Since 2000, Coalfields Regeneration Trust backing has consisted mainly in paying Paul Marshallsea for his work at the centre and providing other short-term financial and moral support. As Marshy put it:

“The Coalfields Regeneration Trust took this project to heart and gave us a chance. The first and most important domino was down and the rest of the funders just followed suit and the funding came rolling in. Imagine the scene – a cold, damp, old dilapidated building with no windows where pigeons fly in an out, where the rain just sweeps in every day. I was standing there in this massive space with water up toour ankles and telling this guy Alun Taylor from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust – ‘this building is going to change the lives of countless amounts of young people, it will be the best youth project in the whole of the UK’”.

Following a new financial and management structure that has been put in place for the current year the Welsh Government is providing £181,000 through Communities First for the year to end March 2012, mainly for salaries and to cover other running costs.

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust is providing a further £76,000, which is being used to fund a business development manager engaged in developing long-term sources of funding and hence sustainability. A key task will be finding other tenants, such as business start-ups and community users, to operate from the centre, alongside the youth club. Other local businesses, among them Asda, which has a superstore nearby on the Heads of the Valleys road, Tesco and T-Mobile, and the Cardiff-based Waterloo Foundation as well as other local and UK-wide charitable trusts, have provided one-off grants for individual projects.

Feasibility studies have recently been done, and business plans developed, with the ultimate objective of securing sufficient funding for the building to be purchased from the local authority and the interior to be remodelled. If the plans go ahead – and it is hoped Heritage Lottery Funds can be accessed – three new floors will be created inside the interior at a cost of up to £3 million, enabling the number of activities that can be provided to be greatly increased. Then it will be possible to draw in even more children from the surrounding area.

At present the centre has around 1,300 children on its books. However, Marshy  believes this could expand to 2,000 over the next year, with a wider network of bus services bringing in children from across the area. Just as importantly, space will be created for renting out to outside organisations for conferences, presentations and other events. Already more than 20 outside organisations are using the facility.

Its hilltop location means Dowlais can at times be a bleak place. Yet, according to Marshy, crime and ant-social behaviour has seen an 80 per cent reduction since the Engine House opened. Successes at the centre include young people who have gone on to college and to jobs in teaching and other careers. Many others have acquired a new self-esteem and confidence. As Marshy put it:

“We asked the young people what they wanted from the outset and we’ve provided exactly that. We have a listening corner and our youth workers are trained to listen and bring out the best in our  young people.”

Commenting that the Coalfields Regeneration Trust’s intervention had sustained the club through difficult times, he said:

“They are not like other funders. They have people who understand what is happening on the ground. Before the money is committed they have to be convinced it is worthwhile.”

The Trust’s funding process is also seen as relatively uncomplicated with a relatively straightforward application form, though it could be speedier:

“You would need to be a Philadelphia lawyer to fill in some of the forms we get from other funders.”

To Marshy the Engine House is the best young people’s club in Wales. To prove it he won an award from Children and Young People Wales, the association for youth clubs, this year.

Rhys David, an IWA trustee and a former journalist with the Finacial Times, writes on economic and business matters.

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