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The affordable eco-house built by prisoners and an ex-offender

A ground-breaking project which hopes to break the cycle of reoffending is starting to bear fruit in Devon.

An eye-catching, ultra-modern eco-home is starting to take shape on a site owned by Torbay Council alongside the St Edmunds NHS building in Torquay.

The low-carbon, one-bedroom modular house, which is insulated using straw, will soon be allocated to a local person in need of suitable housing and support to gain greater independence.

The sleek and stylish home was designed by Agile Homes but was actually manufactured and assembled by serving prisoners and a local man on probation.

Since November, prisoners at HMP Leyhill in Gloucestershire have been learning valuable skills to build the timber and straw panels for the modular home.

The completed panels were transported to Torquay in January and were assembled within a day to form the shell of the house.  This assembly was done with the help of ex-offender Nuno Mendes who is currently on probation and has recently been homeless.

Nuno is helping to build the property with the help of experienced local contractors MW Benney, learning valuable skills and being paid the minimum wage for his efforts.

The project, which is the brainchild of the South West Regional Reoffending Partnership (SWRRP), has been funded by £100,000 from the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.  The SWRRP is made up of public sector leaders from around the region and on it sit five Police and Crime Commissioners.

It’s hoped this project in Torquay could see the ambitious scheme rolled out on a far greater scale to reduce reoffending, support prison leavers into jobs and homes, help alleviate the national lack of affordable housing and to deliver new, low carbon, modular homes at pace.

Pat Steward, Head of Opportunity at Agile Homes, said: “As a values led business, we want to do more to help reduce reoffending, reduce the cost of reoffending and have a positive impact on people’s lives.

“We have a contract with HM Prison and Probation Service, to manufacture homes in HMP Leyhill. We are showing that, through investment in prison workshops and in training, we can have a hugely beneficial impact on people, by delivering homes that people need and by providing meaningful activity and much needed new construction skills for prisoners to support them into employment when they leave prison.

“In addition, we are also showing that providing opportunities for ex-offenders, prisoners released on temporary license and people on probation can help change their lives for the better.

“These homes will help the most vulnerable people in our society and show that houses like this can alleviate homelessness, unaffordability and assist those living in unacceptable or inappropriate accommodation.

“Torbay Council will own and manage this home, providing safe space and support for single parents for around three months whilst also receiving wrap-around support to help them gain independent living skills before moving on.  The cycle can then start over again.

“We want to scale this process up, working with other prison workshops across the UK to increase production.  In doing so, we want to tackle a number of issues including the climate emergency, affordable housing delivery and reducing reoffending.

“The public sector is crucial to success. Torbay Council has provided the land for this home and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner has funded this proof of concept home.  Huge credit goes to them for their vision and support.”

Nuno Mendes, the person on probation who has helped with the assembly of the home in Torquay, moved to England from Portugal in 2003.  He has struggled with homelessness and has been to prison on several occasions, most recently last year when he served six weeks at HMP Exeter.

Nuno, aged 50, said he jumped at the chance to be involved in the project – and attends regularly with his dog Bella.

He said: “I did well on probation and when they asked me if I wanted to get involved in this I said yes, I always say yes to work.

“I’ve been doing a little bit of carpentry, learning how to work with new tools, painting, plastering, helping build decking – anything they ask really.

“I’ve enjoyed being part of this, I like learning new skills.”

Commissioner Alison Hernandez said: “We’re really keen to help people who have been in the prison system and make sure they have purpose both in prison and outside.

“All of our community wants to see people succeed and contribute positively to society and this is just one opportunity that we’ve managed to achieve.

“We’ve worked with the prison service to help prisoners learn valuable modern construction skills in a workshop and we’ve also worked with the probation service to help an ex-prisoner learn a trade on site. 

“This is about keeping people busy and giving them a purpose on something that is really useful to our society.  The skills they learn here will stand them in great stead when they leave the prison system and help break that cycle of reoffending that can so often become a miserable trap.”

Emily Trotman, Industries Manager at HMP Leyhill, said: “My team and I have embraced the opportunity to work with Agile Homes. The project is exciting and innovative and to have been included in a new concept and venture from its commencement is an opportunity we felt passionate about engaging with.

“The project teaches our residents how to read and understand technical drawing and specification and how to apply this knowledge. The skills they have gained whilst working in our joinery workshop are applied and embedded in the practical manufacturing thus enhancing their employability skills and future employment on release.

“The project provides hope for residents by creating the opportunity for them to learn modern manufacturing and constructions skills whilst contributing to reducing re-offending goals both for themselves and their peers who may find themselves in similar circumstances. This concept is inspiring and we are passionate about ensuring its ongoing success.”

Cllr Steve Darling, Leader of Torbay Council, said: “As a council our mission is to support and empower its residents, communities and our partnerships and this scheme is a fantastic example of just that.

“We want to ensure that all our residents have access to good quality homes, which are affordable and also sustainable – especially as we have an ambition for Torbay to become carbon neutral by 2030 and low-carbon innovative homes such as these play a major part in fulfilling that ambition.”

Prisons Minister Alex Chalk MP said: “Helping offenders find work on release is at the heart of our strategy to reduce reoffending, cut crime and create fewer victims. This project is another fantastic example of the great work our prisons do to support their communities as we build back safer from the pandemic.”