Unique Broadband

Posted by editor on March 26, 2010 under Business, training and employment, Community

When New Deal for Communities set up in 1999, few homes had computers and even fewer had access to the internet. Ten years on and, as NDC draws to a close, Len Grant takes a look at the broadband legacy left by the regeneration programme.

Let’s get one thing straight. Eastserve is not what is was. The local internet service provider – set up in 2002 by New Deal for Communities to provide residents with computers, training and broadband connection – is now effectively split in two.

There’s the bit that still provides lots of community information and support for local residents, much of it compiled by local people themselves, which is online at eastserve.com. Then there’s the technical side – Eastserve Broadband – that continues to provide a competitive broadband service to hundreds of east Manchester homes and businesses using an innovative wireless network.

Although separate, both Eastserves are between them offering the same – if not more – than the previously combined service.

Keith Tongue: "No land line, no contract, no worries."

Keith Tongue: "No land line, no contract, no worries."

But it’s the broadband side I’m off to investigate for thisiseast.com. It’s twelve months to the day – give or take – that Beverley Hughes MP cut a ribbon outside Eastserve’s Ashton Old Road’s offices to mark the beginning of a partnership between private telecoms company, Symera and Manchester City Council.

It’s all part of what the regeneration people would call an exit strategy: they’ve used public money to set up and run a much-needed service to local residents and once it’s up and running they encourage others to get involved as the original funding comes to an end. At Eastserve it was Symera who saw an opportunity to get in at ground level in east Manchester.

“It’s not been a totally seamless transition,” admits Eastserve’s Keith Tonge. “It’s one thing to operate with ample public funds and another to make the books balance as a going concern.” With a view to the long term, Eastserve has trimmed its overheads – shedding staff and moving to smaller premises – to concentrate on their key business of providing a reliable, cost effective broadband service to residents and small businesses.

Keith, who has years of experience in the telecommunications industry, is now gearing up for a big push for new business. Although broadband operators are falling over each other to get new customers, Keith is confident the wireless hardware installed across east Manchester gives them a big advantage.

“Most other services come down the telephone line,” he explains, “and you can only get so much down it. But in this area we have 75 ‘access points’ on top of key buildings which relay the connection direct to the little square receiver we attach to each home, so we don’t use the local telephone system at all.”

This means customers can get online without the need of an expensive landline. There are no contracts either, but there is a one-off connection fee to cover the cost of installing the hardware. “We can reduce the connection fee depending on how customers pay us,” explains Keith, “and it’s even something the Manchester Credit Union will consider a loan towards if necessary.”

There’s a big marketing campaign starting soon and Keith is confident he’ll add hundreds of new customers over the coming months. “The beauty of Eastserve is we’re local: if there’s a problem there is no faceless call centre to negotiate, customers can talk to us right here in Openshaw.”

Using the same technology Symera can adapt the service for business customers: “We can use the local network to relay security camera pictures and other digital information,” says Keith. “We’re just beginning to take advantage of this state-of-the-art infrastructure that’s only fitted in this part of Manchester.”

More information on the broadband packages and other Symera packages available from Eastserve here, or call them direct on 230 6346.


Inspirational Gorton

Posted by editor on March 3, 2010 under Business, training and employment, Community, Education and health

Len Grant reports back from the ‘Gorton People Stronger Together’ consultation day last weekend.

I feel I’m witnessing the beginning of something special. Today Gorton people are coming together to celebrate the start of a motivational programme for young people and their families. I arrive at the indoor market in time to see dozens of young people being issued with clipboards and I LOVE GORTON T-shirts before being briefed

Clipboards at the ready

Clipboards at the ready

by Ruth Ibegbuna from Urbis, the programme co-ordinator for the ‘Gorton People Stronger Together’ programme. “Tell people about the money,” she says to volunteers, “and ask them what they’d like us to spend it on. Then invite them along to the Monastery for an afternoon of fun and entertainment.” (Not to mention the free food supplied by the Gorton Market traders).

The volunteers are split into teams, each given an area to canvas in the next couple of hours. “I’ll do the estate,” says one teenager who might expect to be still under the covers at this time on a Saturday morning. “I know it well, so I’ll get some good responses.”

We all love Gorton!

We all love Gorton!

I follow the four-strong team heading for Hyde Road and Tesco and overhear enthusiasm (and occasional apathy) from their respondents towards the news that Gorton has won £450,000 from the central government’s Inspiring Communities programme.

Today is billed as ‘Gorton’s biggest ever community consultation’ and, as the completed questionnaires come rolling back to base at the market, it seems that plenty of people have a view on how the ‘win’ should be spent.

But this project is not starting from scratch. Already the Urbis team have run hugely-successful ‘Reclaim’ mentoring schemes for young people in Moss Side, east Bolton and north Manchester. (See http://www.reclaimproject.org.uk). The ‘Stronger Together’ programme will build on and extend the theme taking a wider approach by supporting young people as well as their families.

Plans already include Saturday classes for 11–14 year-olds (more early mornings!); a project to renovate unsafe open spaces, adding lighting, greenery and public art; and a Reclaim mentoring project for Gorton girls (the last one was just for young men).

Down at Gorton Monastery preparations are well in hand for the afternoon event. As the Bloco Nova samba band and dancers arrive, I set up a small studio near the café where I am to photograph local people soon to appear on posters and banners promoting ‘Gorton People Stronger Together’. Local MP, Gerald Kaufman is one of the first to arrive and, although he’s unlikely to appear on a banner, he is more than happy to pose in his Gorton T-shirt with some of his younger constituents.

Smile if you love Gorton!

The afternoon flies by. The word has got out that the photography sessions are informal and fun and soon there is a queue out the door. Young and old are captured and I even persuade the camera-shy to take a turn. Some of the pictures appear here but more will adorn Gorton in the coming months.

Before I know it, and with nearly 1000 images on my memory card, the event is over and I hear later about Gorton Visual Arts and their print-making workshop; the manifesto-writing and the young people getting up there on the ‘Gorton Plinth’ telling everyone about their achievements and aspirations. I don’t need to be told about the samba band because I heard their mesmeric beat down the corridor!

To get involved in Gorton’s exciting new project email inspiringcommunities@urbis.org.uk or call 0161 605 8218.

Confidence Booster

Posted by editor on February 18, 2010 under Business, training and employment, Community

They are out there. In every corner of east Manchester they are giving their time freely, supporting local organisations and, at the same time, learning new skills. Len Grant interviews a couple of the Experience Volunteers.

I’ve probably come across dozens of volunteers at events and in local offices but never actually realised it. They are some of the hundreds of unpaid workers trained and placed by Experience Volunteering, a service for local residents run by the community group, 4CT.

Many take up volunteering as a stepping stone to finding work, others to keep active and make a contribution to their community.

Doris Hardcastle: "I'd recommend it to anyone who's stuck it a rut. It gives you a new lease of life."

Doris Hardcastle: "I'd recommend it to anyone who's stuck in a rut. It gives you a new lease of life."

I met Doris Hardcastle in a church hall in Clayton where she had been supporting a mental health users’ group. “It’s just a cup of tea and a chat,” she tells me, “but it’s somewhere for people to meet together which is very important.”

Doris, I hear, has been volunteering for many years. She met the Experience Volunteering service some time after her mother died and has been helping in the community ever since.

“I’d been nursing my mother in her own home for eight years,” she says. “She suffered from Alzheimer’s and I promised her she wouldn’t die in hospital. When she passed away in 2000 I nearly had a nervous breakdown, I was in a bad way.

“I’ve changed enormously since then. The volunteering team has been tremendously supportive and it’s given me a lifeline, a new lease of life.”

One of Doris’s first roles was at the East Manchester Festival at the Grange Community Centre as part of the Refugee Week celebrations. “I’ve also been a receptionist, helped at the Seeds of the East festival in the summer, and next week I’ll be at the stadium for the JobCity recruitment fair.”

It seems to me that volunteering works on so many levels. For Doris it’s about keeping active and building up confidence. New volunteers to the programme are invited onto short courses and taught communication skills, customer service and teamwork, but it’s that all-important confidence building which is central to the work placement.

Tony Pearson: "I enjoy passing on my skills."

Tony Pearson: "I enjoy passing on my skills."

Tony Pearson says he hit ‘rock bottom’ after a trio of personal setbacks. A relationship breakdown, redundancy from a managerial position with a charity and the death of his own mother all contributed to a depression from which is he only now recovering.

“I’ve been able to keep my skills fresh with the volunteering,” he says. “It’s kept my head clear and I’m more focussed now.”

Tony is not new to volunteering. Throughout his varied career he has used his skills to help others. During his 20s he played in a band and later worked as a Community Service Volunteer in hospital radio, trained in radio production, and then trained others. “My heart is still in radio,” he says, “and I enjoy passing on my skills.”

Since he’s been with Experience Volunteering he’s helped out in their office with administration, marketing and even some of the funding bids. He’s also developed his love of photography and staged an exhibition of his work at the Grange in Beswick. “I took up photography after my mum died. It’s been a good distraction. I’d like to be able to make a living from it but realistically it’ll stay as a hobby as I look for a job in IT training.”

Within months Tony will have completed a course which allows him to apply for teaching assistant posts. “I’d like to be a full-time adult tutor in IT and Photoshop,” he says. “Already I’ve been offered a volunteer placement at The Manchester College which is one step closer to getting a full-time job. Since I’ve had the bad times, I haven’t had the breaks. You just need some luck.”

East Manchester residents interested in volunteering should call Sue or John on 0161 230 1436. Email: info.experience@btconnect.com  www.experiencevolunteering.com

Winning Streaks

Posted by editor on February 4, 2010 under Business, training and employment

Len Grant visits Wigs Up North, the Ancoats-based winners of New East Manchester’s All Stars EnterPrize award.

I’ve been looking forward to doing this story, not just because the company I am visiting sounds wonderfully bizarre, but also because they are based in one of my favourite Ancoats buildings, Royal Mills.

Jackie Sweeney: "It's not all glitz and glamour"

Jackie Sweeney: "It's not all glitz and glamour."

For three years between 2003 and 2006, I would impersonate a construction worker with yellow vest, hard hat and ‘rigger’ boots and photograph the renovation of this magnificent mill. Its central atrium, now glazed, is the focal point of the apartment block and is slowly becoming home to an eclectic bunch of independent traders. There’s a fashion wholesaler, an outdoor and snow sports retailer and soon a café. But it’s Wigs Up North I’ve come to see and Jackie Sweeney, one of the three partners, is happy to tell me about the rise and rise of their specialist business.

Wigs Up North in the renovated Royal Mills

Wigs Up North in the renovated Royal Mills

She and Liz Armstrong met whilst studying at the London College of Fashion. “I was lucky,” says Jackie, “One of the students ahead of me put me forward for a job at Phantom of the Opera and my tutor recommended me to a specialist wig company… and that was while I was still at college! So my second year was mad: I was setting wigs for Phantom in the mornings, catching a couple of lectures, popping over to the wig company and then, in the evening, going back to do the Phantom show. I was loving it.”

When the Phantom production team needed a replacement make-up artist Jackie was able to suggest Liz. “Her first love has always been theatre,” she says.

Aware that the wig and theatrical make-up business was predominately London-based, the two friends, both from the North West, saw a gap in the market. “I asked Liz one day whether she fancied giving it a go and she said yes, and that was it, we’ve never looked back.”

‘Wigs’ began trading from a start-up unit near Manchester city centre before moving to Royal Mills. Now they work with northern companies like the Royal Northern College of Music and the Buxton Festival, designing wigs or supplying their own stock, as well as being a regional supplier of make-up (their other specialism) for touring companies. “We know how difficult it can be for production companies to get the right supplies when and where they need it, so we work with shows like The Sound of Music, Starlight Express and Chicago.”

Liz and Jackie were joined in 2005 by Vicky Holmes, another wig and make-up expert who’s fitted wigs to hundreds of heads on numerous West End productions.

Jackie: "We're happy to provide training for those on their way up."

Jackie: "We're happy to provide training for those on their way up."

I ask Jackie what is it about wigs that she and her partners find so compelling. “It’s the whole transformation thing,” she says. “With actors you’ll notice how their demeanour changes as they are being made up. You’re helping them transform into their character and that’s very rewarding.” The ‘wig women’ made six wigs for Peter Kay including the one for his Geraldine persona. “Once he put that red one on with the blond streaks, he was immediately in character. But it’s not all glitz and glamour. An elderly lady came in this morning and bought a ready-made wig and that, for me, means just as much.”

Jackie, Vicky and Liz with the EnterPrize trophy

Jackie, Vicky and Liz with the EnterPrize trophy. Photograph: Karen Wright Photography.

Having moved to Ancoats, ‘Wigs’ were in New East Manchester’s patch and eligible, then, to have a stab at the EnterPrize award. Jackie says they didn’t think they stood much of a chance – the competition was so tough – and went to the awards ceremony in December content to have a good night out at the fabulous Gorton Monastery. But they’d clearly impressed the judges with their business plans and came away with the £10,000 top prize. “We were astounded,” recalls Jackie, “it was such a great night and then to come out on top…”.

Jackie tells me they are using their winnings to beef up their e-commerce operation using something called the EPOS system. I just nod.

Since my visit to Royal Mills, ‘Wigs’ have been to yet another ceremony and can now add runners-up in the North West Women in Business Awards to their trophy cabinet. Congratulations!

Wigs Up North

EnterPrize award