Wheels come off youth initiative

Alison Lowndes, in red, with the KO2 team, volunteers and Army recruits on the "track day" which saw them build the dirtbike track. Below Alison's 14 year old son Ben demonstrates one of the electric dirtbikes, and the entrance to Foremost School's site (s)
Alison Lowndes, in red, with the KO2 team, volunteers and Army recruits on the "track day" which saw them build the dirtbike track. Below Alison's 14 year old son Ben demonstrates one of the electric dirtbikes, and the entrance to Foremost School's site (s)

A social enterprise set up to help young people has lost its home, a £50,000 investment and years of work after the county council pulled the plug.

Alison Lowndes, of Summerbridge, sank three years into her dream project – a plan to use her passion for motorbikes to help young men excluded from mainstream schools to engage with education.

Alison Lowndes' 14-year-old son Ben demonstrating one of the electric dirtbikes (s)

Alison Lowndes' 14-year-old son Ben demonstrating one of the electric dirtbikes (s)

Her base of operations, complete with dirt bike track, was set to be at a new special school on the former HMS Forest Moor site near Darley.

The scheme had support from the local community and the apparent blessing of North Yorkshire County Council – until officials abruptly rejected it.

Now the project has ground to a halt. Alison’s organisation is floundering, its five staff face redundancy and local volunteers have no access to the dirt bike tracks they helped to build.

Alison founded KO2 Adventures in 2008, as a “community interest company”. Its aim was to run dirt-biking courses for troubled youngsters, breaking down the barriers which had kept them from fitting into normal schools.

NADV 1209036AM1 Foremost School. (1209036AM1)

NADV 1209036AM1 Foremost School. (1209036AM1)

By introducing them to dirt-biking and teaching them about bike maintenance, she hoped, it would build their confidence, help them to manage their behaviour, learn to assess risk, take responsbility for their own development and acquire important life skills.

Alison said: “We attempt to get kids who have dropped out of mainstream education engaged, because schools cannot cope with providing specialist education.”

In 2009, a year after setting up KO2, she heard about the Forest Moor site. It had been earmarked by the county council for use as a specialist school for boys with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.

The council planned to relocate the Baliol School – a special school in Sedbergh, Cumbria – to the site, and the pupils gave it a new name of Foremost School. It seemed like a perfect match.

“I went to county hall to talk about the Forest Moor site in 2009,” said Alison. “Since then we have been waiting for the site to go ahead... because these things take time.”

Hoping to move into facilities on the site, Alison secured £50,000 start-up funding from Key Fund Yorkshire, a community development finance initiative that lends money to other social enterprises.

The county council was keen, even going as far as purchasing a fleet of eight electric dirtbikes for KO2 to use at the school.

KO2 would be based at the Forest Moor site as an independent organisation, providing its courses to the school’s students, as well as other community and youth groups.

Alison said that KO2 had even been promised premises – the site’s former guardroom – near the entrance. Her organisation also had the support of many local community members around nearby Darley.

With their help, she secured donated and discounted materials to make a start on the dirt tracks the bike sessions would be based on and volunteers, including a group from Harrogate’s Army Foundation College, spent two days building tracks on the Forest Moor site in April this year.

Their help and support was, Alison said, “wonderful”.

“The dirt track was built over 48 hours of really hard labour – but by volunteers: AFC army recruits, local companies, farmers, friends and even people running out to pick up pizzas so each of the recruits could have one piece each after a hard weekend’s slog,” she added.

But in November 2011, there had been an unexpected roadblock: the county council told KO2 that a formal lease would need to be drawn up. It came as a shock to Alison, who says the need for a lease had never previously been mentioned.

Months of waiting followed. Then, in March this year, she was told there would be no lease. The project was off, but KO2’s staff appealed to the county council for the decision to be reconsidered, and were hopeful enough that they went ahead with the track-building day in the next month.

But in May the final blow came when Alison received another letter from the council, this time saying her complaint had been turned down and the project would not go ahead at the Foremost site.

Alison’s plans, the £50,000 investment she had secured, and the jobs of five staff she had lined up for long-term employment, were lost.

The Advertiser contacted the county council asking why the project was rejected and why the decision took so long to arrive. It would not give reasons for the delay, but gave the following statement:

“Foremost School is in the early stages of developing its facilities and activities as a community special school for boys with behaviour, emotional and social difficulties. It opened its doors in January after students moved across to the Darley site following the closure of Baliol School in Cumbria.

“The school has undergone a change of leadership and the new leadership team, along with the local authority, is reviewing the whole curriculum and the activities which will be made available to students.

“The county council’s Children and Young People’s Service has taken the view it is not appropriate to have projects such as those offered by KO2 on the school site at the present time.

“Health and safety considerations were an important factor in the decision – a decision which has been given full and careful consideration by the council under its complaints procedures and by the Local Government Ombudsman who upheld the council’s position.”

Alison maintains that, by March, she had been led to believe that health and safety concerns were long behind them. KO2 had produced a “massive” risk strategy, she said, and submitted it all to council officers.

And, she says, there’s one final kick in the teeth. Much of KO2’s equipment remains at the site.

“The £7,500 of personal protective equipment – helmets, boots, goggles, clothing, armour – and mechanical equipment is still in the facilities manager’s office,” she said, “along with the fleet of eight electric dirtbikes that have been on charge since March, unused and hopefully untouched.

“Unfortunately, when we went to collect £4,000 of furniture from the school, in storage in the sports hut, most of the items have been vandalised.”

Attempts to buy the unused dirtbikes, painted in KO2 livery designed by Foremost’s students, have also been unsuccessful.

Despite the difficulties of the last few months, Alison is trying to remain positive and hopeful they will be able to find a new home and new funding for KO2 Adventures.

“I am trying to remain positive, but it’s really difficult. I’ve spoken to our youth worker, who is now unemployed, and life is really difficult for him.

“The whole team had such hopes and dreams and they have been competely dashed.

“It’s difficult when you’ve had a position you love and it’s taken away from you. It’s worse than redundancy in some way, because it feels like there’s no reason.”