BBC’s DIY SOS team step in to help Blackpool’s unpaid carers

The DIY SOS team is heading for Blackpool later in June
The DIY SOS team is heading for Blackpool later in June

As milestones go in a charity’s history they don’t come much bigger than this - and in National Carers Week.

The BBC’s DIY SOS team hosts its trades day for Blackpool Carers Centre on Wednesday - in the midst of a national week to build awareness of the challenges faced by unpaid carers day in, night out.

Young carers lead worker (Blackpool Carers Centre) Faye Atherton

Young carers lead worker (Blackpool Carers Centre) Faye Atherton

The team is out to turn a run down ransacked building on Newton Drive into a young carers centre of which Blackpool Carers Centre - and indeed Blackpol - can be proud.

It’s the Big Build for Children in Need - the programme due to broadcast in November.

It will enable the charity to build a better future for carers of all ages as it will double as the administrative base too.

It may be carers’ week but every day is carers day for unpaid carers who hold loved ones and families together against illness, infirmity, disease, dementia, substance misuse, mental health issues and more.

Ultimately we feared that riaising so much capital would be a near impossible task in today’s economic climate

The age range of the charity’s 4000 carers spans five to 96. Five hundred are young carers aged five to 18 or young adults. Young carers are most likely to be blighted by the impact of caring at such an early age if they don’t get more support. It takes its toll of their health, studies, aspirations, free time. Most don’t grudge a minute of it. They do it out of love rather than duty.

Blackpool Carers Centre knows thousands more carers - who perhaps don’t consider themselves such - are still out there including around 2000 young carers. The charity was born 11 years ago of the goodwill of locals who saw the need then. It’s even greater today. The little charity struggles to court major funders - up against bigger more emotive appeals.

The DIY SOS Big Build will enable it to build a much brighter future for young carers - and others.

Blackpool Carers Centre is a national network partner of the Carers Trust but remain an independent charity. In every sense. It was the first to introduce a young carers’ champion - a role up for grabs by a young adult carer, or former carer, once the annual Cash Quest 4 Carers, a three month challenge to companies and community groups to raise as much money as possible from a refundable starter stake of £50, starts on Thursday afternoon (3pm-5pm) at the De Vere Hotel. That’s the day after the BBC’s DIY SOS team hosts an all day site meeting for trades, invitation only, at the property formerly known as Blenheim House on Newton Drive - as part of the galvanising of forces for the Big Build for Children in Need later this month.

Jubilant - young carers champion Camilla Ball and young carers lead worker Faye Atherton on site visit to the new centre

Jubilant - young carers champion Camilla Ball and young carers lead worker Faye Atherton on site visit to the new centre

It’s the stuff of dreams for the charity. As charity chief executive Michelle Smith puts it: “We are stunned, joyous. We feared that raising so much capital would be near impossible in today’s economic climate.”

Blenheim House - as most still call it - has a genteel air of a dowager fallen on harder times. It was built in the late 19th century as two houses for the well to do of the age. Blackpool’s Bigwigs. Timber merchants, brewery chiefs, directors of the Tower, Winter Gardens.

It was left to the NHS on condition it was used for the health and welfare of young people. It was fit to move into, if a bit run down, when the NHS moved child development services to Whitegate Drive - where the original Blenheim House had started.

Metal thieves moved in, smashed through walls, ripped out radiators, tore up floorboards and stripped the building of copper and any metal of any value.

YCAD Carers Trust chief executive Michelle Smith

YCAD Carers Trust chief executive Michelle Smith

They may have assumed the building was to be demolished and transformed into luxury flats - in common with many great, but unlisted buildings, on the old ‘quality’ streets of the resort.

But this property was saved the bulldozers by the NHS’s commitment to its continued use for social care.

Instead carers centre staff, trustees and volunteers stood in the debris and saw past the damage to the potential. Beaverbrooks Charitable Trust shared that vision and bought and donated the building for the charity’s use. That was a year ago. Carers chief Michelle admits: “I couldn’t tell you how mnay conversations I’ve had with potential donors, the ups, the downs, the hopes, and some of the hopefully enduring friendships made.

“Ultimately we feared that riaising so much capital would be a near impossible task in today’s economic climate.”

Then DIY SOS called. “We have since spent hours developing plans, speaking with families, liaising with the production team. Their professionalism and passion for the project is infectious.”

The vast Victorian building stands in an acre of grounds rich with mature, listed, trees. It’s on a bus route. It’s handy for the hospital. It has a substantial car park, a boon in this area.

The former Blenheim House on Newton Drive will become the new HQ for Carers Trust Fylde Coast.

The former Blenheim House on Newton Drive will become the new HQ for Carers Trust Fylde Coast.

A playground stands to the back. A child’s chair, the wood bleached from rain and sun and being left out of doors for so long, was left upturned out there too, next to the annexe which, in time, the charity hopes, will be converted (by others) into a specialist dementia support unit for carers.

It’s a testimony to the sensitivity of the BBC’s DIY SOS team that one of the very first things producer Charley Adam (no relation to the footballer) did - on the first site visit after deciding to take the project on for the Children in Need big build - was pick the chair up, and place it within, with a note saying ‘do not remove’.

Equally heartwarming was build director Mark Millar’s assurances that no corners would be cut, no matter how tight that nine day turnround time - from June 28 to July 7.

For staff, who have campaigned to convert the building, what has happened is little short of a miracle - almost a year after Beaverbrooks made eyes shine.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the BBC having to be so BBC-ish they’d be showering them with DIY SOS rock (donated, of course) and asking the resort’s Cinderella carriages to carry DIY SOS star Nick Knowles and designer Laurence Llewelyn Bowen - a former young carer himself and one of Blackpool’s best ambassadors since being recruited to help with the Illuminations - to the site.

Because this is the stuff of fairy tales for young carers. It’s a dream and now local and regional tradespeople are about to meet that fantastic crew and help it come true.

The only snag to all this building work to come is = it’s wrapped in goodwill but cloaked in secrecy. Social media channels will give little clue as to what’s going on there. The charity is blocked from following @DIYSOS on Twitter - until the time is right.

I could tell you about that very first site meeting - when the team turned up to check out the annexe and then asked if they could look inside The House - but I’d have to kill you. With kindness. The kindness of the strangers who entered the ransacked building and saw, as charity chief Michelle and patron and founder John Barnett (who grew up in the adjacent property) did, the potential shining like gold dust in the mangled metal.

For once DIY SOS say yes they enter the site with the same zeal, passion, care and commitment they bring to each and every project. The mantra is keep calm and carry on building.

Even with the Great Ormond Street build now under their belt the Blackpool project is one of the biggest and most challenging the intrepid BBC team has taken on. And only the builders involved will be kept in the know from now on. The charity is in a BBC buffer zone - and it’s purgatory if you’re nosy.

No watching from afar. No dawdling past the gates. No drones or droids deployed. No driving past very slowly. Checkpoint Charley is up. The BBC runners are briefed to chase us off.

What happens at DIY SOS stays at DIY SOS - and that applies to all those brickies, and scaffolders, painters and decorators, plasterers and plumbers swearing a collective vow of silence on Wednesday.

And that’s how it should be until the Big Reveal in July ahead of the programme airing in November.

Why spoil the surprise, says producer Charley. And she’s right. Because it’s happening - as Mr Knowles might say - in the Nick of time...