A group of Japanese academics supporting the rebuilding of communities damaged by the nuclear-power station disaster in Fukushima are visiting the North East to learn about how community regeneration charity Groundwork NE & Cumbria is helping local people.

The group is visiting a number of Groundwork projects with the charity’s CEO Kate Culverhouse to hear how its work has evolved to meet the changing needs of the region’s communities since the pit closures of the 1980s.

One of these projects is the Groundwork-owned social enterprise, GWK Woodshed, which sells original wood furniture made from repurposed timber and off cuts. It also provides training opportunities and supports its team members to progress into further education and/or employment. Another is the Lobley Hill Community Centre, which Groundwork has taken on in order to help local people to take ownership and make the centre self-sustainable through room hire and events.

The group, led by Yuichi Moritomo, a professor at Fukushima University, has been involved since the beginning of the clean-up operation following the earthquake and nuclear disaster of 2011. Now that initial decontamination is almost complete, their work is shifting focus to concentrate on the regeneration of communities and enterprise.

They hope to take home advice on how work with communities to develop a bottom-up integrated approach, which consults residents and businesses about the kind of support they want and need to progress.

Groundwork’s first North East Trust was set up in 1985 to meet the needs of communities suffering as a result of the pit closures in East Durham. Over the next twenty years, other trusts were established across the region, before being amalgamated into Groundwork North East in 2009. It currently delivers more than 350 programmes across the North, helping communities to improve their communal spaces, and supporting hundreds of people each year to gain new skills and qualifications so they can move into employment.

Kate Culverhouse, Chief Executive at Groundwork NE & Cumbria, said: “We’re very pleased to welcome our visitors and hope that Groundwork’s experiences will help them to form an appropriate action plan to support the revival of the areas affected by the Fukushima tragedy.

“Although we have not experienced a disaster on the same scale, the North East of England has plenty to teach Japan and other nations in terms of overcoming the effects of industrialisation and repairing damaged landscapes.

“Over the years, Groundwork’s approach has changed from an environmentally-focussed support charity, to be much more targeted towards improving communities as a whole. We do this by helping to improve peoples’ job prospects, combating social issues such as loneliness and taking a more holistic approach to all challenges which our region faces.

“The lesson that I hope the group takes away is to be adaptable. Just like the region we cover, the area affected by the disaster is large and varied place, with a range of communities, who each have their own problems to overcome. The key to successful community regeneration project is to be flexible and find individual, tailored solutions which suit the situation.”

The group’s leader Yuichi Moritomo, a professor at Fukushima University, said: “It has been very interesting to see and listen to Groundwork’s experience of community regeneration and how it and other charities, along with social enterprise and private sector partners, have worked with local people to overcome significant issues. Not only in terms of repairing damaged environments, but also repairing societies and communities.

“In Japan, it is the norm for regeneration initiatives to be delivered from the top-down by Government, but we feel it is important for the people in the areas affected by the Fukushima disaster to take ownership over their own development. We will be taking back our findings and making recommendations after a deeper consultation with partners and local people.”