Eleven Arches project could be like Edinburgh Fringe for aspiring students

Community and business leaders are hoping that the £100m vision for Bishop Auckland can provide the skills the North East needs

Anne-Isabelle Daulon, project director of Eleven Arches at the launch event in Bishop Auckland
Anne-Isabelle Daulon, project director of Eleven Arches at the launch event in Bishop Auckland

Week in, week out in the North East we are told of the skills gap that holds back both the young and the growth of businesses.

Of all the regions, it is ours that has the highest proportion - 16.8% - nationally of 16 to 24 year olds not in education, employment or training (NEET).

Previous studies by the North East Chamber of Commerce found part of the reason for this is a lack of communication and general employability skills.

But what can be done to raise aspirations and provide an opportunity to up-skill to prepare workers for the jobs the region’s firms are so desperate to fill?

As well as recreating a sense of community spirit, the volunteers of the Eleven Arches project are hoping that philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer’s £100m vision for the former Bishop Auckland golf course will provide that lasting economic legacy.

“We’ve seen years of perpetual decline but to have something big in our area – in the way that Sunderland has Nissan and Newcastle has the new technology industries – would be great,” said town councillor Jamie Blackburn, 27.

“We can offer the public leisure and history and that is something that can belong to the county as a whole.

“I think people will get behind it as I’d think anyone in our region would want to see it happen.”

Eleven Arches chairman Peter Watherston said: “Unlike the Olympics opening ceremony, which brought games-makers together to create a great one off performance, this will be ongoing and something that people will belong to year after year.

“This has huge potential for people to learn new skills, and also to encourage people to see what can they can do, and have hope, and take that away into their working.”

The inspiration for Eleven Arches comes from the Puy du Fou park in western France, which over the course of 37 years has grown from a volunteer-led night show to become an international attraction.

Puy du Fou has a historical day park alongside the spectacular Cinescenie - staffed by more than 1,400 volunteers who give up their time to make each of the 30 yearly performances a success.

“The success of Puy du Fou was evident - not only in terms of economic impact for the area with increased visitor numbers, the creation of so many jobs, skills development and opportunities for training, but also in terms of the experience of taking part in it,” said Jill Cole, 55, a freelance arts manager from Barnard Castle who was among a group of Durham volunteers who went to see the Vendee park for themsleves.

“It has created less tangible but nevertheless hugely important outcomes for those involved: in terms of improved well-being, a sense of belonging, commitment, working together as part of a team and a great sense of purpose.

“I have always believed firmly that taking part in the arts can improve lives, and we saw living testament to that fact.

“To think of undertaking such a project in Bishop Auckland is visionary. Like so many small, under-served communities in the north east, Bishop is facing a bleak future.

“It will take something huge to ‘turn the ship’ and put Bishop on the map for visitors and in the hearts of those who choose to live there.”

But while thoughts already turn to performance skills, with the anticipation that specialised training academies will be founded to teach disciplines such as horsemanship and stage production, the first step will be to find the landscape gardeners, labourers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other tradesmen needed for the project to prepare its 115-acre site to welcome 6,000 spectators and hundreds of volunteers by May 2016.

“I think it will take time to develop,” said Hannah Stirling, 35, an English teacher at Bishop Barrington school. “But after that initial stage I think the excitement and atmosphere will really bring people together, and the skills they develop will build on the skills they’re already learning in schools.

“Until we have it there we won’t know the possibilities – it could introduce students to new ways of working or new careers.

“Perhaps someone who has never worked with animals might find out they are into that.

“What excites me the most is that it could give young people these opportunities and open their minds to this world of possibility, which they can take further.”

Artist Jane Crawford, 45, agreed.

“Hopefully it can provide the opportunities for the whole community and improve both the area and the skill sets required to be involved in the community’s plans.

“It’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for young people to try out new skills and develop in a way that they can then help themselves.

“It will improve their self esteem and self belief, and that will help them towards future jobs and help the region.”

Jonathan Ruffer at the launch of the Eleven Arches event in Bishop Auckland
Jonathan Ruffer at the launch of the Eleven Arches event in Bishop Auckland

Gemma Egan, 32, a learning area lead for art, music and performing arts at Bishop Auckland College, said: “I definitely think my students will be excited to get involved. It will give them something to aspire to.

“In our area there’s not a lot that pupils can do when they want work experience, particularly when they want to become involved in performing. This will give them a chance to experience what it is like to have something on their doorstep, and grow their passion.”

Other members of the group of volunteer “ambassadors” who were taken to the Vendee said they hoped that the skills people might learn through participation in the show could help broaden their horizons and in time become not only a matter of pride, but beneficial when looking to the world of work.

“It’s going to be a magical night show and I think it will make a name for itself,” said Paul Flynn, 48, a director of community interest company Enter CIC.

“I think young people will be proud to put it on their CV and once it’s established people will consider it almost a mark of distinction, in the way that having done the Edinburgh Fringe is.

“I hope it will bring a lot of work and a lot of interest in the area in terms of both investment from large companies and its ability to help smaller companies grow.

“If this small town can dream this big then hopefully they’ll want to put their money where our mouth is.”

Former head of art at St John’s Catholic School, Mark Rossi, said that as well as up-skilling younger people, the show may also help preserve those skills in the community which might otherwise be lost.

“I know that employers are looking for transferable skills and commitment and if this sees young people committing to it year after year that’s got to be a good thing for their CV,” he said.

“In schools these days we also talk about cross curicular skills, with what is learnt in one subject being used in another. This will show young people that the skills they are learning in school can also transfer to the outside world.

“Also older people in the community have wonderful skills which will be lost if we do not encourage them.”

Of course the idea of large scale events providing an economic shot in the arm is nothing new - with the most obvious recent example being the Olympic football matches at Newcastle’s St James’s Park providing a £7m boost to business.

Next year rugby league’s Magic Weekend looks set to provide a further £3.5m benefit, while civic leaders talk in terms of a £14m opportunity from the Rugby World Cup in October 2015.

And the idea of dreaming big to bring the best attractions to the North East is something being very much backed by the North East Chamber of Commerce.

“As we prove every year with the Great North Run, as we have demonstrated by hosting the Ashes, international football, record-breaking concerts and crow-pulling events like Lumiere – the North East can put on a good show,” said NECC policy and research manager, Mark Stephenson.

“It would be fantastic to think we could attract something like the Commonwealth Games to our region. We have the passion, skills and sporting culture to underpin a powerful bid and we have seen in Glasgow and Manchester the scale of regeneration an event of this nature can bring.

“A celebration of our region’s place in history, our proud industrial heritage and rich sporting legacy would be fantastic and most of the research has already been done by our fantastic museums and visitor attractions.

“And Eleven Arches is an ambitious project, but if it comes off could have an incredible impact on the County Durham economy and also provide a major boost to employment in and around Bishop Auckland.”

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