Mel Bowen runs Spider Project, a vibrant oasis of creativity in the centre of Birkenhead supporting Wirral people who can’t work, but want to.
The people Mel works with are generally recovering from low-level mental health problems, substance misuse, or health problems that are a barrier to them working.
Mel, 50, grew up in Wirral’s Woodchurch Estate. He lost his mum to cancer at the age of eight and says this had a big impact on his early life. He recalls some tough times around the early 1980s in particular, when he saw several of his friends fall into heroin use and addiction.
Mel says his love of music and in particular picking up a guitar at the age of 12 were key factors as to why he didn’t follow the same path. Instead, he says, bands like The Jam, The Clash and The Ruts helped him to engage with social issues like drug use and addiction and opened up an alternative direction for him.
At 25, Mel enrolled at Wirral Met College to work towards a career as a field-based substance misuse worker – a goal he achieved and a role he stayed in until he started Wirral’s Spider Project in Birkenhead 10 years ago.
Music still plays a big part in Mel’s life. In addition to his professional role at Spider, (as it’s known), he is a well-known singer-songwriter and musician on Merseyside.
He is passionate about the creative arts and this comes through in the sessions on at Spider, which launches a new programme in February called ‘Move on Up’ aimed at people who are unemployed due to health-related issues.
Mel says: ‘I literally can’t wait to open up the doors for Move on Up in February – because I know there’s a wealth of talent out there. I really believe the arts are not just for wealthy middle-class people. We can all massively benefit from and contribute to our community through creative arts.’
Looking to plans for 2017 and beyond, Mel is not afraid to think big. With a nod to future regeneration and economic growth of the town, Mel is a firm believer that Birkenhead has a unique culture and creativity that if properly harnessed and developed, can perfectly complement - not try to compete with - Liverpool’s.
His face lights up as he mentions the idea of a bridge spanning Birkenhead to Liverpool as suggested by Liverpool-born architect Mike McDonough. Reflecting on a trip to New York, Mel likens the concept to the Brooklyn Bridge, where New Yorkers can walk, cycle and drive between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
He says: ‘Why shouldn’t we think big for Birkenhead? Why not build a bridge to bring people from Liverpool to Wirral via Birkenhead and vice versa? Look at New York. Twenty years ago people flocked to live and work in Manhattan but Brooklyn was considered less desirable and a bit cut off. Now both are booming and are connected by the bridge.’
Mel cites Cammell Laird shipyard and Birkenhead’s docklands among his favourite places in Wirral and hopes to see both the town’s shipbuilding heritage and the local creative talent that he witnesses and nurtures daily at Spider reflected in future redevelopment plans.
Looking to Spider’s future, Mel hopes to see it become an even more integral part of the Wirral community, with more people coming into Spider through the Move on Up programme and an abundance of creativity, positivity, talent and skills continuously going backout into the local community.