THIRTY-FOUR years after the children’s TV series Byker Grove was first shown by the BBC, the estate on which it was set is celebrating the announcement of a £4.2-million grant to enable the return of a youth centre to the area.
“The Lighthouse Project” will mean the transformation of St Michael’s, Byker, into a “state-of-the-art youth and community hub”, the diocese of Newcastle said this month.
The Revd Phil Medley, who chairs St Michael’s Centre Partnership Byker, and is a former vicar of the parish, said: “In searching for a new lease of life for the building, we spent a lot of time consulting in the community, and what came back loud and clear was that there were no facilities for young people in Byker.
“Quite literally, there is no proper youth club here, and much of the youth work takes place on the streets as a result.”
It is four years since fund-raising for the project began. In 2019, worship and meetings at St Michael’s were held in a tent in the church, which lacks a heating system (Features, 10 May 2019).
This week, Mr Medley described a “long journey” in fund-raising. Support from the Mercers’ Company, and a crowdfunding campaign, had enabled the employment in 2020 of a project co-ordinator, who had led a community consultation. And, last year, a donation of £300,000 had been secured from the Lord Crewe Trust, with another “substantial grant” from the Squires Foundation. An operations director, Ben Roman, had been employed, and the journey had culminated in a successful bid for the Government’s youth-investment fund, securing £4.2 million from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Already present on the estate is Mission Initiative Newcastle East (MINE), set up under a Bishop’s Mission Order, and employing a youth worker, Dave Johnson, to lead activities with young people. Mr Medley confirmed that this would continue, based at St Michael’s, while other partner youth organisations would also be able to use the space.
The church’s sanctuary will remain as a space for worship. The Priest-in-Charge of St Michael’s since 2020, the Revd Helen Gill, said that the PCC of St Michael with St Lawrence, Byker, was “very excited” about the project. “It has been our ambition for many years to bring our wonderful building to life, and fill it with people. The opportunity to do this feels like a real gift, and is a source of great joy.”
St Michael’s was built in 1862, and is Grade II listed. Redevelopment work is set to begin this year. The Lighthouse Project is scheduled to open in March 2025, providing “a safe and central meeting place in the heart of Byker where young people and the community can flourish”, serving about 1500 young people and families.
“St Michael’s has, for more than 150 years, been the beacon of our Christian presence in Byker, and we are overjoyed to see this major investment in the building, which will reaffirm its crucial importance to the local community,” the Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, now patron of the project, said.
Stacey Davidson, a trustee of the charity behind the Lighthouse Project, who lives in Byker, and works with young people in the area, said: “There are very few places for young people to go, and very little for them to do. We’ve been crying out for something like this for years.”
Addressing the General Synod’s debate on estates evangelism in 2019, (Synod, 1 March 2019), Izzy McDonald Booth, a fund-raiser for the project, quoted a young person who had told her: “Please don’t leave us.” Ms Booth praised Mr Medley as an “energetic and passionate priest” who had a “huge heart for the marginalised”. Newcastle City Council is facing a £20-million funding gap in the midst of an “unprecedented” rise in demand for children’s services.
This week, Ms Booth said that things had “deteriorated further” in the area. “The foodbank and the community centre have been closed; Covid has impacted the community really badly, and Byker needs facilities more than ever. The Church really needs to stick it out in places like Byker. If we believe every person is made in the image of God, we cannot walk away from communities where there are so many issues of poverty and lack of opportunity.”
The Church’s 2019 commitment to mission on estates required money to make it work, she said.
It was announced earlier this year that Byker Grove is set to return on TV. Mr Medley said this week that there were hopes that its original stars, Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, could be persuaded to attend the estate’s “grand opening” in 2025.