Young people at risk in Yorkshire are being helped to engage with society through aquaculture. Simon Creasey reports
On a 34-acre site on the outskirts of Wakefield, west Yorkshire, groups of young people are tending to fish housed in giant plastic sheds (polyhouses), digging out a BMX track and tending vegetables. They are taking part in the Able project, a 100% sustainable social welfare initiative, that aims to improve the well-being of young people suffering from drug dependency and behavioural problems and provide them with life-skills.
The scheme was devised by Graham Wiles, project manager for the Green Business Network. It is unusual because it places aquaculture (fish farming) at the heart of everything it does. The troubled young people, many of whom have been referred from the probation service and a pupil referral unit, help rear a range of fish including sturgeon, with the aim of one day producing Wakefield caviar (in two years’ time the first female sturgeons will mature and their roe harvested).
The youngsters’ backgrounds are completely different from most people who will enjoy the caviar they are helping to farm. “Some of the kids that come here can’t read or write and they are not ready to go out into the big wide world – they still need support,” says Wiles. “They feel safe and secure here, they feel ownership.”
The genesis for the Able project came about 10 years ago when Wiles launched a cardboard recycling scheme run by people with severe learning difficulties. This evolved into an award-winning composting scheme and ultimately led to the creation of a small fish farm near Huddersfield, which involved young, disadvantaged people many of whom were on drug rehabilitation programmes.
While the scheme proved a great success, Wiles says that far more young people were going into the criminal justice system than the scheme was taking out. He realised that, to be really effective, intervention needed to come at an earlier stage and be more widely available.
Thanks to Yorkshire Water, which offered him the use of the Wakefield site situated next to the firm’s sewage treatment works, both of these issues were addressed.
Right from the outset, Wiles wanted fish farming to be at the heart of the project. “We decided to go for a niche market rather than something common like trout,” he says. “So we went for sturgeon with the dream of one day producing caviar only to find out that no one had ever done it before so we were learning as we went along.”
After clearing the site, willow trees were planted to help create bio-fuels to heat the project’s buildings, while a fruit orchard and a one and a half acre allotment growing cabbages, leeks and courgettes were established. All of this was grown on 8,000 tonnes of composted sludge supplied by the adjacent sewage plant. At the same time, the all-important polyhouses were built to house the fish that were to be bred on site.
Since the project opened, 2,000 young people have been referred to it, most of them aged between 13 and 16. This includes young people with learning difficulties, physical disabilities, challenging behaviour and mental health problems. There are also members of drug rehabilitation programmes and offenders from the West Yorkshire probation service.
Service level agreements
The project has recently set up service level agreements with the probation service and with Wakefield District Community School, which deals with children with behavioural problems who have been excluded or partially excluded from school. Through its links with the local primary care trust, the project has also built a relationship with health trainers, who regularly visit the site to educate attendees about issues such as diet and exercise.
Wiles says that the introduction of the health trainers has made a real difference – so much so that a new kitchen has just been installed to teach young people how to cook healthy meals. In addition to the BMX track, which provides exercise opportunities, a workshop is being set up to teach bike maintenance skills.
“This project is all about learning, and education is being built up around the work that they do here,” says Wiles. “These people are not engaged in the normal education process because it doesn’t work for them.”
Wiles wants to be able to award national vocational qualifications to 20 of the most needy individuals who attend the project each year.
He also has ambitious plans to roll out similar schemes at other sites in the region and several local authorities have offered land in their area to replicate the model. But whether or not any further projects will be set up depends on funding.
The Able project is funded through donations and grants from a range of charitable trusts, public bodies and private firms, but Wiles has been largely frustrated in his efforts to attract government money.
Regardless of the lack of government support, Wiles is convinced the model has a future. “This project gives the young people a focus and real interest in life, and everything that we do on site is designed around the fish – that’s what captures their imagination.”
This article is published in the 27 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Fishing for a better life”