Precious Amber

10th November 2000 at 00:00
In rural Wiltshire a charity is helping the 'unemployable' regain control of their lives and careers. Andrew Mourant reports

THE shabby grandeur of Tottenham House, an early 19th-century classical mansion in the heart of the Savernake Forest in Wiltshire has provided a haven for dozens of young people seeking a sense of direction.

People who come here are usually unemployed and sometimes on drugs. Yet many leave with new skills and confidence.

The centre is run by the Amber charity, founded five years ago by philanthropic businessmen. Sustained largely by a contract with the Employment Service, Amber houses and offers practical guidance to people referred through Job Centres, hostels, social services or probation officers.

Residents are taught presentation skills, and, if needed, numeracy, literacy and how to write a decent letter. There is also expert drugs counselling.

Alan Nelson's story is typical. He left home at 16 and spent a couple of years drifting in and out of jobs, flitting from bedsits to friends' floors and then to the streets of Swindon. After a drunken night he found himself up before magistrates and ordered to do community service.

But Alan also had an aptitude for computers and, after using Amber as a base to sort himself out, went off to do an HNC in computer science. He's back now, keeping up his skills before joining the navy early next year. "My real problem was that I couldn't manage money - I used to blow it on cannabis, drinks and clothes," Alan says. "You'll find that almost everyone here has an addictive personality of some kind."

The demands on Amber, which can cater for up to 40 at any one time, have changed over the five years it has been open. "In 1995, there was a lot of unemployment and we had many people simply looking for a job," says development director John Puddy. "But some who arrive now are virtually unemployable. Girls are inevitably more successful at moving on - they seem more motivated.

"Residents have an action plan. We update the plan to make sure we aren't creating a trap - there's a danger some people won't move on and will find it a comfortable bilet. In some cases we say 'six weeks and you're out' - there's nothing like that for getting them moving."

Anyone breaking the house ban on drugs is sent packing. "We had five kicked out for heroin use - one person brought the stuff in and dragged four or five down with him," says Alan Nelson.

But there have been success stories: Baz, a heavy drug-user and one of Amber's first residents, became a chef de partie at the Dorchester.

Now the charity too needs to move on. Tottenham House, leased short-term from the Earl of Cardigan, and formerly home to the prep school Hawtreys, is idyllic in summer but chilling on a wet autumn day. It is also remote - it is three miles to the bus stop and 18 to Swindon, the nearest urban centre. But Amber's first efforts to build a new centre on the edge of Trowbridge, Wiltshire's county town, met implacable hostility from locals who feared the premises would be a magnet for drug-dealers.

"There were those who suggested our people should be sent to the gorilla island at Longleat," says Martin Lawrence, who manages day-to-day running of Tottenham House.

Planners rejected the scheme but Amber's new chief executive Charles Drew is undeterred. "If anything, what happened at Trowbridge has strengthened our resolve to expand," he says.

At least the debacle at Trowbridge gave Amber a clear idea of where it should be heading. "We need two types of centre - one in relative isolation and then a 'graduation centre' in a more urban area, to help people get back into society and work," says John Puddy.

Amber's dream is for a network of centres across the country. It would like to offer practical skills such as joinery.

And after the buffeting it received in Trowbridge, it is anxious to raise its standing. Making better use of big name supporters such as trustee Nicholas Soames MP, and Wiltshire's chief constable Elizabeth Neville, a member of the advisory board, could help.

"Perhaps we should have presented the people who could put us in the best light, 18 months ago," says Charles Drew. "We've learned that in future we will have to tackle objections in advance."

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