The Engine Shed closes its doors after 25 years

Trainees clean the Engine Shed kitchen for the last time. Picture: Neil Hanna
Trainees clean the Engine Shed kitchen for the last time. Picture: Neil Hanna
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FOR the last 25 years it has helped thousands of young people with learning disabilities transform their lives and find work, building up their confidence and equipping them with the skills necessary to succeed.

Yesterday, acclaimed cafe and bakery The Engine Shed marked its final day of trading with tears, laughter and the sharing of good memories from those whose lives it changed for the better.

The St Leonard’s Lane eatery – which employed and trained 30 vulnerable young adults and operated as a stepping stone to help them into full employment – was set to lose £211,000 in the budget reshuffle next month, as the council prepares to roll out a new city-wide support service for the disabled.

The decision to cut its funding was widely criticised by campaigners, who insisted the loss of The Engine Shed would leave a “huge gap” in the help the Capital provides to vulnerable residents.

More than 200 people packed into a hall on the second floor of the building to bid farewell to the institution that gave them the confidence to forge lifelong friendships and develop the skills needed to enter the workplace.

In an emotional speech, former trainee Sean Palmer, from Sighthill, praised staff and urged the young employees to “hold their heads up high”.

Fighting back tears, the 21-year-old, who graduated from the project last year, said: “I’m sad to see The Engine Shed close, I have a lot of fun memories from here.

“The first time I came in I was 16, and I was really immature. But I left The Engine Shed a sensible young man.

“It helped me build up my confidence, and the friends I have made here have all stayed with me for the rest of my life.

“I want to say a big thank you to you all. I hope all the staff and trainees have a bright and happy future. Just remember, don’t let anybody put you down, and hold your heads up high.

“Make the future your own and The Engine Shed will live on in all of us.”

Addressing the crowd, chairwoman Marian MacDonald admitted it was a day of “mixed emotions” – and said the council’s new approach to bringing vulnerable people into employment would not suit everyone.

But she also hinted at a possible future for The Engine Shed, with proposals to expand its organic tofu-making business and even some tentative plans to look for new premises.

She said: “Obviously on the one hand, we are really happy to see so many people – but on the other hand, we are actually closing and this is our last day of training.

“The main point about the training we had here was that people came in and had a lot of help and support, and then they moved on. This is a platform for people to move into jobs and to do whatever they plan to do.

“It’s about giving people the opportunity to learn. They were taking a step at a time in their own way. We were offering people who had never had a job the chance to come in and see what that would feel like.

“We have never been a tick-box organisation – the most important thing for us has been helping people to develop. We are not an employment model, we are a training model that supports people into work.

“The main point, we would say, is that one model does not suit all. People need a range of models.”

She added: “We want to carry on. We want to see if we can fit into a new and changing environment.”

Yesterday’s closure made 16 members of staff redundant, as well as 16 trainees – 13 of whom had yet to complete their three-year training schemes.

Scott Edward, who has autism and learning difficulties, was the last trainee to graduate from the project and secure a job. The 19-year-old, from Baberton, has landed a part-time position at Rose Street sandwich shop Social Bite – and said it wouldn’t have been possible without The Engine Shed.

He said: “I officially start my new job on Monday. The Engine Shed has been great – it built up my confidence and it was good to be around people my own age.”

Mum Sandra, 51, said she had noticed a “huge difference” in her son since he started his training at the cafe and bakery three years ago.

“He’s much more confident,” she said. “He made friends there, and he’s learned what it’s like to go to work. It definitely took a wee while for his confidence to build, but that’s in his nature – to be guarded.

“It’s quite a sad day for all of us. Scott just absolutely loved it. He has a part-time job at the end of it and I don’t think it would have happened without The Engine Shed. I think it’s a huge loss for Edinburgh and all these trainees. It was just amazing.”

Rosie Barclay, who has been chair of the project’s board of directors for the last 16 years, said the call to shut up shop had been a “really hard decision”.

She added: “When people came to The Engine Shed they were quite often lacking in confidence, and then they went out afterwards and were great members of the team for an employer.

“There’s a new Supported Employment Model from the council, but that initial training is gone. There is going to be a gap there.

“This was a factory, a production unit. We could not have run it the way it’s being run at the moment under the new funding model.

“It was a blow to lose our funding, but it has been on the cards for the last two years or so. There was a campaign to try to save The Engine Shed, but we knew it was probably a stay of execution for a year. A huge amount of input went in to trying to make sure the trainees were OK. Everybody wanted to make sure they were well looked after.”

The Engine Shed is the third disabled workplace in Edinburgh to be forced to close in recent years, with the BlindCraft bed and mattress factory shutting up shop in 2011 and Remploy factories closing two years later.

Lothians MSP Sarah 
Boyack said: “It is an issue which requires urgent attention. In Scotland just 46 per cent of 
working-age disabled people are employed, compared with 76 per cent of the general population, and the risks of long-term unemployment are consistently higher.

“I hope we can see a new social enterprise emerge, committed to serving the local community and reopening the doors once again to The Engine Shed.”

A council spokeswoman said the new city-wide employment support service would give those with a disability “the best chance of finding a job”.

Councillor Frank Ross, the city’s economy leader, said: “The new service is being put in place in April and is made up of a consortium of experienced local community providers with a proven track record in helping job seekers with a disability into work.

“It will provide 1600 clients with access to the new one-stop service and a minimum 500 job outcomes will be secured.”

How the engine ran out of steam

Opened in 1989, The Engine Shed allowed young adults with learning disabilities to gain valuable experience in a bustling workplace – giving them the skills necessary to move on to further employment.

In 2013, the scheme fought back from the brink of closure following a funding crisis, with a campaign launched to boost its finances and ensure services continued. But last year it was revealed the cafe’s £211,000 cash support from the council – around 40 per cent of its income – was to be brought to a halt from March this year amid plans for a new city-wide support ­service.

The Engine Shed chose not to join a consortium of other disability groups working to prepare for the new system.

Case study: ‘It made a huge difference for Matthew’

MATTHEW Hope, from Buckstone, joined The Engine Shed when he was 25 after cuts to funding forced him to leave college.

Three years on, the 28-year-old – who has ADHD and Tourette’s syndrome – now works in Klondyke Garden Centre and harbours fond memories from his time at the St Leonard’s Lane cafe and bakery.

And he insists his experiences at the centre were vital in preparing him for the world of work.

He said: “It was good – I met a lot of friends and mixed with people. I gained good experience, as well as confidence and skills. I still keep in touch with people I met there.

“I like my new job, but I miss my pals here. I think it’s sad for the community that it’s closing down – not just for the people who work here.”

And mum Maureen Hope, 63, insists The Engine Shed offered a unique service that won’t be replaced by the council’s city-wide support service.

“It made a huge difference for Matthew,” she said. “He gained experience and was able to mix with people his own age – it was his own peers learning together.

“That’s the value The Engine Shed has over the one-to-one support the council is offering. The council operation is more tick-box – it’s just finding a person a job and that’s them done.

“I’m just so glad that Matthew had the chance to be here, and so sad that other young people won’t.”