• Alastair Cooper
  • 6 minutes
  • 29/04/2022
13898

Tim Neobard: Social Value Champion 2022

In spring 2020, following two years of negotiations with Rochford District Council, Tim Neobard finally secured a lease on a dilapidated shell of a building in Hawkwell, Essex. His vision? To create a new hackspace. Just in time, as it turned out, for the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

What is a hackspace? A hackspace is a community-based workshop housing machinery, IT facilities and multiple rooms – a bit like a communal garden shed. Inside, people can design, build, craft, learn and socialise. Seed businesses are often to be found creating prototypes and experimenting in hackspaces, before securing funding. Although there are around 70 nationwide, there were none in Essex. 

As Tim’s lease was coming through, the country was plunged into a once-in-a-generation public heath crisis. 

When he heard the NHS and other health organisations didn’t have the right PPE to protect their keyworkers and patients, Tim led a crowdfunding campaign to purchase industrial CO2 laser cutters and 3D prototyping machines. He then began production on over 14,000 PPE items. Initially based out of Tim’s garage, production was moved to the new building and quickly ramped up. 

The social value of the project didn’t stop there. Essex’s first hackspace has grown to be a centre of excellence for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education. 

The building Tim had identified was a disused sports pavilion at Clements Hall Recreation Ground that was due to be knocked down. It had a leaky roof, fire damage and several resident rats, but Tim saw that it still had something to offer the local community. 

A hackspace is a community-based workshop housing machinery, IT facilities and multiple rooms – a bit like a communal garden shed. Inside, people can design, build, craft, learn and socialise. Although there are around 70 nationwide, there were none in Essex. 

Across the UK many communities have provision for sports and outdoor activities, but nowhere for people to develop new skills outside formal – and sometimes expensive – education settings. At East Essex Hackspace (EEH), people can develop hobbies and professions, skills and ideas. Several enterprises have begun at EEH, including a project to install energy harvesting toilets in developing countries. 

The building Tim had identified was a disused sports pavilion at Clements Hall Recreation Ground that was due to be knocked down. It had a leaky roof, fire damage and several resident rats, but Tim saw that it still had something to offer the local community.  

Rochford Council offered the money that had been earmarked for demolishing the building to spend on fixing the roof instead. A professional handled the electrics, while Tim and five other volunteers plumbed, plastered, painted and fitted a commercial kitchen in their spare time – following social distancing rules throughout. Local tradespeople offered their skills for free, installing air conditioning, ventilation and heating. Electric roller shutters and a ramp were added to improve access for disabled users. 

This initial burst of activity generated publicity for the project and inspired more people to get involved. Staff at the nearby airport did a sponsored ‘run the runway’ event to raise money for heating units. The local junior parkrun, which uses the recreation ground, raised £1,500 and now base their runs from the building, making use of its facilities. 

Tim has worked to ensure the building is accessible as possible, not just for disabled people, but also establishing policies that encourage and welcome under-represented groups – particularly women, single parents, people from an ethnic minority background and those in the LGBT+ community. Additional security features have been installed, facilities are gender neutral, and everyone is inducted into the ethos that the site is a community for all. 

As Tim’s employer, and a champion of social value, WSP offered money, volunteer time, equipment and skills worth thousands of pounds. Employees used their allocated volunteering days to help with the build and to raise money, and many gave their own time too. When Tim took on a running challenge in aid of the hackspace, WSP matched his sponsors’ pledges. And the company also supplied, and is continuing to supply, laptops, which were initially used by local schoolchildren during lockdowns and now by hackspace users with disabilities. 

I’m incredibly proud of how our staff actively engage and support their local communities, and the part that we play in supporting them with this. The active partnership we have established with East Essex Hackspace, through Tim, means we will be able to continue to support them as they expand their services in the community.” 

Matthew Haythornthwaite, Chair, WSP Foundation 

In total, the hackspace has supplied over 120 laptops and computers to local disadvantaged children including to those who had been previously overlooked such as those with disabilities. 

All this is funded through a combination of public sector support and contributions from members. Rochford Council retains ownership of the building, leasing it to the hackspace for seven years at a peppercorn rent. Members pay a small monthly fee to cover utilities and ongoing maintenance. The hackspace is both a registered charity and a community interest company. 

The project’s reach and impact grows and grows as the hackspace weaves itself into the fabric of the community: 

  • Volunteers have made over 14,000 PPE items for local healthcare workers.  
  • Since July 2021, there have been over 1,500 visitors to the hackspace, including 350-500 regular users.  
  • Online, a lively Facebook group has 800+ members.  

It’s become a home for volunteer groups and charities – volunteers from REMAP use the equipment to create custom design solutions for disabled people, enabling them to live more independently. Many are referred by the NHS and the volunteers enjoy putting their engineering skills to good use. 

It’s been a lifeline for many retirees, some of whom experienced severe social isolation during lockdowns, encouraging them to get out and make new friends. The local U3A group meets there, offering lifelong learning opportunities for older residents. 

For young people, there are children’s Minecraft coding sessions, and the hackspace hosts local scout groups. The hackspace prioritises attracting children from all backgrounds and offering an alternative to sports-based extra-curricular activities. 

Opportunities for STEM training and employment locally are not easy to come by but Tim runs workshops with the STEM ambassadorship programme, working with Canterbury University. Activities like rocket building have engaged students of all ages with STEM subjects.  

 A large team of volunteer educators teach CAD design, programming, 3D fabrication, woodworking, metalworking, cooking and sewing, offering free sessions for adults and children alike.  

“The East Essex Hackspace is fantastic and well managed.  The space allows local people to meet, socialise and enjoy many activities together. I’d like to thank everyone who has brought this building back into use.”  

Cllr Julie Gooding, Rochford District Council. 

With so much on offer, the project has already received a string of awards for its impact on the local community. These include a Pride of Essex ‘Heroes of the Pandemic’ award, and the Community Spirit Citizen of the Year award for Tim from Rochford District Council. Tim’s determination and hard work have launched something special that will continue to benefit this East Essex community for many years to come. 

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