Repairing, recycling and selling bikes, providing work experience to people with a learning disability – there’s no end to what the Green Bike Project can offer.
As golden autumn leaves fall quietly from the trees of Hollywells Park in Ipswich, there’s a hive of noisy activity in an old Victorian stable block at its centre. A strong whiff of oil, the clattering of metal and uncontrollable laughter are the telltale signs that the Green Bike Project is open for business.
It’s a Friday when I visit, and the last day of the working week, which began on Tuesday. I am greeted by John and Stavros, who are working in the workshop today. They use the service for people with a mild or moderate learning disability, which forms part of Genesis Orwell Mencap.
It is just one of a range of activities that the group provides, from pottery to salsa dancing, and is one of two social enterprises – the other being the garden furniture workshop, which is how the group began in 1993. “All our users pay to be there, and they choose what they like,” explains Genesis’ chief executive Nino Serritiello.“It’s like a leisure centre model.”
The bike project came to life in 2008, when it was granted £50,000 from the Big Lottery Fund. It is run by one full-time staff member – David Baldry – and between two and four people with a learning disability every day. As well as giving them valuable work experience, it is an important resource for the local community – offering recycled bikes at bargain prices, alongside servicing and repairs.
The day’s work
“I got here at nine o’clock and had a cup of tea, had a chat with Dave about what we had to do today and then started work,” explains John as he tinkers with a mountain bike (pictured right). “This is the old ten-speed mechanism and it doesn’t work, so I’ll put a new one on – that will come from another bike we’ve recycled.”
Meanwhile, Stavros is sanding down an antique children’s bike, before repainting it (pictured above). There’s not much the team won’t attempt to fix – as long as it’s safe. In the shed full of bikes and scattered around the workshop’s courtyard there’s everything from a First-World-War-era-bicycle to BMXs and a tandem. Some are almost brand new – others are falling apart.
“My favourite day is Thursday, when the van comes with more bikes,” continues John. “They come from people’s houses – they donate them.”
The aim is to get that vanload fixed by the following Thursday, when a new batch will come in. “We do up three or four a day,” explains David (pictured below, centre). “Unless they’re in a real sorry state and then it might take us all day to do one.”
The only thing that distracts them from the task – apart from sudden outbursts of song or laughter – is a visit from a customer. “If today was nicer, there would be people in and out all day,” David says. “Anyone who comes through the park sticks their nose in and has a look.
“Whatever they want, we can normally twist their arm into buying something – we’ve already sold four bikes this morning. John’s our top salesman.” As we speak, John is talking to a lady who is looking for a bike with a basket, before trying to sell one to me.
At as little as £30 a bike – or £10 for a child’s – it’s hard to say no, especially now cycling has become more popular. Nino explains that over the last couple of years, gridlocked roads and rising petrol prices have meant more people taking to their bikes in Ipswich.
A full service
Small repairs will often be done for free and a service is £15, but a complete overhaul is also available. “There’s one over there that is made of three bikes,” says David. “A chap brought in a bike last year and it was dead – it was quite sad that he was going to lose it because he’d had it for so long – and he’s coming back next week to see what we’ve done with it.”
This recycling element gives the bike project its green credentials. It takes in about 2,000 bikes every year, which have usually been sitting rusty and buckled in people’s gardens, and does something with every one – even if it’s just taking the salvageable parts to use on other bikes. Even the rubber from the tyres is recycled – shredded up and used to make shoes, among other things.
Nino’s concern is for the future. As a result of government spending cuts and welfare reform, services like this are at risk. “So it’s just not going to be around in ten year’s time if we carry on withdrawing funding for people with moderate or non-critical needs, he says.”
For now though, the Green Bike Project workers enjoy getting their hands dirty and spending time with their colleagues. “It’s a mixture of being with people and getting really stuck in,” says Nino. “Plus, last year we did National Open College Network qualifications, based on the bike and furniture projects, so those on the social enterprises got some qualifications. They also have a good work ethic and work skills.”