One of the country’s most notorious bank robbers is in talks with Birmingham City Council over plans to invest £60 million in a 28-acre village for ex-convicts and serving low-level criminals.
Londoner Bobby Cummines, who used sawn-off shotguns in his crime days, spent 13 years in high security prisons during the 1970s and 80s.
Now he is an influential campaigner for prison reform and wants to launch a major rehabilitation scheme in the city.
The 57-year-old chief executive of Unlock, the national association of ex-offenders, is passionate about providing an escape route for youngsters tempted by the glamour, money and instant gratification of gangs, drugs and guns. With prison overcrowding a major problem, and a very expensive one at £11 billion a year to the public purse, Unlock believes it can offer an alternative.
The plan is to build a village the size of nine football pitches, known as the Diamond Project, to help low tariff offenders, such as those convicted of drug offences, burglary and minor assault, and those at risk of re-offending to go straight. The project would also help the long-term unemployed and recovering drug and drink addicts.
It involves a campus-like centre giving offenders the chance for an education or to learn a trade. There would also be a sports centre, a creche or nursery, medical centre, shops, a post office and accommodation.
Strict rules which anyone staying there would have to sign up to would be in place – instant eviction would be caused by drugs use, having weapons, sexual harassment, theft or any violence.
Mr Cummines already works with a drug rehabilitation service in Birmingham, Phoenix Futures, and is looking for a site to build one of the first Diamond Projects here.
He said: “I love Birmingham. But the gang culture is ingrained in certain estates where youngsters who want everything now, such as designer clothes, trainers and computer games cannot get it for a few pounds a week on a paper round, so they deal drugs. I want to give kids hope, instead of a dealer giving them dope.”
It is far from a pipe dream.
Unlock has the financial backing of major private investors, including the Queen’s bank Coutts, the Big Lottery Fund and several charitable trusts. Among the charity’s patrons is former Erdington MP, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale.
Mr Cummines now has to persuade Birmingham City Council to find him the land. The city’s regeneration chief Neville Summerfield has already met Mr Cummines.
Coun Summerfield (Cons, Brandwood) said: “He has a very interesting proposal which we need to have a look at in detail.”
Bobby Cummines’ CV shows an impressive turnaround from a life of crime to a campaigner and government advisor on prison reform.
Brought up in north London he became a violent gang member in his teens and was soon behind bars for carrying a sawn-off shotgun. Between 1969 and 1988 he was a notorious bank robber, also convicted of manslaughter and spent a total of 13 years in high security prisons.
He educated himself and turned his life around, starting out as a volunteer helper for fellow ex-offenders. He became a trained negotiator and suicide counsellor for a housing association working with ex-offenders and those with mental health problems.
But it was through the Unlock organisation that he found his true calling.
He quickly realised that one of the biggest barriers to rehabilitation of offenders was their lack of access to everyday services such as bank accounts and insurance and successfully convinced many financial institutions they were missing out on a vast and untapped market.
He has been an expert advisor to the Government and House Of Commons on issues of prison reform and rehabilition. Mr Cummines has most recently fought for the right of prisoners to vote in elections.