A top police officer is working side-by-side with former drug addicts and long-serving prisoners as part of a revolutionary million-pound project to turn around lives.
Sgt Steve Hodgkins has been seconded from his post with Lancashire Police to lead community interest company Jobs, Friends and Houses (JFH), a property development business.
To an outsider it is a straight-forward building company; buying, renovating and selling on derelict properties in and around Blackpool.
The difference is in who is doing the work.
All properties are redeveloped by people in recovery, with a view to either renting the properties to others in recovery, or putting them back on the market to make a profit for the social enterprise.
And it offers much more than just helping the resort’s housing stock.
It does what it says on the tin; providing jobs, friends and houses for those recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, and to those readjusting to life outside the prison system.
It has so far had more than £1m investment, in just 10 months, from a range of publicly funded bodies – including the Department for Communities and Local Government, Arts Council England and from Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner’s budget.
And it is working in partnership with Blackpool and The Fylde College to offer apprenticeships to employees, and with the NHS to ensure workers’ good health.
Sgt Hodgkins said: “I’ve always believed in redemption instead of throwing away the key.
“By creating meaningful employment, stable accommodation and inspirational peers around them, we are proving that you can turn people’s lives around.
“It’s a simple idea. The project is unique in this country.”
He is joined in steering the enterprise by programme manager Matt Idle, who worked at Kirkham Prison.
Mr Idle made history as one of the first former prisoners, also in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, to be employed by the prison service to work with offenders.
He said: “We don’t just want people to stop taking drugs, we want them to lead meaningful lives and have aspirations.”
“It’s given me purpose,” said Terry Hughes.
The 42-year-old is taking an apprenticeship in maintenance with JFH, having spent years in prison and being addicted to drugs.
He added: “The money being saved through this is amazing, you’re not a burden.”
Where keeping a person in prison for a year costs around £65,000 a year, these former convicts, who all spent time in and out of the prison system, are now paying taxes.
The six workers already taken on are undertaking apprenticeships through Blackpool and The Fylde College, under the management of qualified professionals.
Project manager Josh Trask, a Blackpool lad born and bred, is one of the few employees who is not in recovery – he was enlisted as foreman for the building work by chief executive Sgt Hodgkins.
The former Highfield Humanities College pupil took the risk to join the firm, even taking a £10,000 pay cut to do so, after believing in Sgt Hodgkins’ conviction that this is the right thing to do.
He admits that, as well as changing the lives of the ex-offenders it takes on, it has also changed his own.
He said: “My background is in building. Working with people in recovery is not what I’m used to, but I fancied taking a different path.
“I see how it’s changing people’s lives and it’s more than just a job now, I’m helping people.
“I’m fortunate, I’ve not seen the lives some of these people have lived.
“You don’t have to be from Blackpool to know what sort of state it’s in. If JFH can make a change to that and get people to change their lives, surely that’s better for Blackpool.”
Properties worked on so far are across the resort, from flats in North Shore to a business premises in central Blackpool, a house in Marton and a health centre in South Shore.
“We’re not just renovating the building,” said Mr Idle. “But the person as well.”
Any concerns the business could face scepticism from the community have been quashed by those who’ve come into contact with JFH staff so far – the neighbouring cafe owner of one building project, who gives the workers half-price tea in support of their work, or the clothing retailer who gave the accountancy apprentice a smart new suit for free to help him on his way.
Former Blackpool FC captain Charlie Adam has been vocal in his support on social media.
“We’ve had some really positive feedback,” said Mr Idle. “In Blackpool there a lot of victims of addiction, now they see these people giving back and paying taxes, we’re trying to reduce crime and future victims.
“It’s combatted our apprentices’ stigma too, of what police officers are like.”
Terry says it’s “mind blowing” for him that he works for, and is friends with, a police officer.
Liam Brown, 26, has ‘done time’ for offences including burglary and stealing cars, and is now one of the first apprentices taken on by the scheme.
He said: “My life is totally different now, it’s so good to be giving something back now and living a normal life.
“I’m giving back for what I took away for so many years.”
Desmond Hue, 42, is volunteering with JFH and hopes to be taken on into paid employment, saying this is the first time in decades he’s felt he has a future.
He said: “I heard that exciting things go on in Blackpool in recovery. Because the town is known for [drug and alcohol problems] there’s been a major counter reaction to it.
“Before I thought that getting off the substances was it all, now I know I need to change the whole lifestyle.
“I’ve done a lot of time in prison, for thefts, armed robbery, stealing, selling drugs. I know I’ve cost [society] a lot, but the way I look at it, hopefully some good will come of it.
“The best thing about working here is knowing I’ve got a future.
“I can only think of one other time when I was this happy and that’s when I was a child, because then I had a future. I feel like that again now.”