Taken for a ride

“People are like motorcycles: each is customised a bit differently” runs a motorcyclist maxim. And this is the inspiration that fuels the motor project run jointly by the south London boroughs of Richmond and Kingston-upon-Thames. With a motorcycle test track in Tolworth, Kingston, both boroughs aim to engage 13 to 19-year-old offenders or those at risk of offending.

“We’re not all academic,” says Tony Brooks, motor project co-ordinator for Richmond. “Some prefer the practical side of things. If you come to them with a maths sheet they’d tell you where to go. But if I say to them ‘Right, we’re going to set the points on this bike – where are the feeler gauges – and how many thousandths of an inch are we looking for?’ they all want to know.”

Brooks, who climbed on board in 1992, but who only this year was appointed jointly by social services and education full-time to the project, also teaches basic mechanics in his workshop. Young people usually take part in a six or eight-week programme on the project. And the big treat is to visit the Tolworth track and ride the bikes. Says Brooks: “I use it as a carrot all the time in the classroom. I say I’m riding Tuesday and Thursday and if you play the game you can come along. I can then say to my teacher colleagues let me know how they are. Because if they kick off in a lesson they know that they lose the reward. And it works. Generally they respond well.”

Most of the young people (who are overwhelmingly male) have not ridden before, so they are trained moving from an automatic to a semi-automatic to a clutch bike. “We take them in the baby track [a small go-kart circuit] to just go around in circles so they get used to riding a clutch bike. They have to prove they can control the bike first before we allow them onto the big track,” says Dave Wright, reparation officer for Kingston youth offending team, who spends about 10 hours a week on the motor project.

And the big track is impressive. The Auto Cycle Union (now called ACU Motorcycling GB), the governing body of motorcycle sport throughout Britain, set the track out and has officially approved it. “The most difficult thing to find is a piece of ground,” says Brooks, who along with Wright is an ACU approved instructor. The land (“gold dust”) is owned by Kingston but its future is far from assured. “It’s such a valuable piece of land that it might get sold. But that’s out of our hands.”

Brooks believes that over the years he has seen around a couple of thousand young people through the project. “Obviously I’ve had my failures,” he says. “But we have had our successes: lads who have gone off to work in garages. One of the young people now helps the scheme out – doing mechanical work and helping out as a marshal.”

The bikes also prove an effective and positive diversionary alternative as Wright explains: “The other week I was driving around and saw a young lad I know on the streets. I know he didn’t live in the area. So I got him in the car and brought him here – and he loved it. So instead of hanging about on the streets getting into mischief he was here.”

“We do get criticised,” adds Brooks. “People say that we’re doing all this for the bad boys and the good boys get nothing. But here today half the lads haven’t offended. And we include other socially deprived young people – for example we have a group of travellers from Hampton who attend.”

Prevention is the key. “I know this,” says Brooks. “When it does go wrong and they get locked up the money spent punishing and locking people up is horrendous compared to what we spend. I just think we should have more money put into programmes like this.” Fighting torque, indeed.

– For more information contact Tony Brooks at the Strathmore Centre, Richmond 020 8943 3353.


Scheme: Motor project

Location: Tolworth, Kingston, south London

Staffing: One full-time co-ordinator (employed by London borough of Richmond social services and education) and staff time from Kingston youth offending team

Inspiration: To engage young offenders and those at risk of offending

Cost: About £20,000 a year – not including equipment   

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