Big Issue founder John Bird on how Norwich helped inspire his latest project

On a visit to his former home city, Big Issue founder John Bird spoke to the Evening News about how Norwich has inspired his latest project to help the homeless. TOM BRISTOW reports

On a visit to his former home city, Big Issue founder John Bird spoke to the Evening News about how Norwich has inspired his latest project to help the homeless.

He has been a beggar and a businessman on the streets of Norwich – but today John Bird's attention is firmly focused on the future.

The entrepreneur is hoping to use his latest digital publication – Answers from Big Issue – to raise the profile of unsung social enterprises which tackle poverty and homelessness.

Its second issue features ethical underwear from India, a project training the homeless to become chefs in London and a German professor's ideas on taking care of the elderly.

But it was when living in Norwich in 2008 that Mr Bird said his idea for the project started.

'When I came I kept a low profile. I didn't want to get anybody worried that I would make this the HQ of homeless,' he said.

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'But when I came I realised there were an enormous number of projects that needed oxygenation.

'It was here I came up with this idea – people taking answers from the Big Issue. It grew out of experiencing a city where a lot of people know what they are doing – some of the projects are really interesting.

'For me Norwich is inspirational.' The first time he arrived in the city was in 1970, aged 23 as a beggar.

'I was on the run from the police,' he said. 'I bummed around here and then moved back to London.

'I have done everything in Norwich – I've been a rate payer and a pain in the rear.

'Now I'm a social entrepreneur and I want to promote the projects that exist in Norwich to the wider world. I want them to be praised.'

Keen to leave London, he spent the year with his wife in a friend's house in Eaton and, being back in Norwich to support a friend's art exhibition, his thoughts soon turned to culture and social change.

'It was one of the things that drew me to Norfolk for a year in 2008,' he said. 'I loved Norwich. It has got everything – art and culture.

'When I go to that Library I want to cry. It is right in the middle with the BBC and shops. We had a wonderful time here.'

The profile of the magazine in Norwich was certainly raised with Mr Bird's arrival, but has the city become saturated with Big Issue sellers?

He admits Norwich is a 'small magnet' for the homeless, along with Cromer, but claims the Big Issue is solving problems rather than attracting beggars to the city.

'When we go places, we check the police and local authority want us to come,' he said. 'We are clearing up a problem that exists.

'When there are too many we try to move them about. We have a guy in Norwich whose job is to shift them around.

'It has been a bit intense sometimes and then falls off. In the end we have to shift people off the streets and give them an alternative.'

Born in Notting Hill in 1946 to a poor family, Mr Bird was homeless by the age of five.

But his troubled life before founding the Big Issue in 1991 has not turned him to believing the state has the answers to poverty and homelessness.

In a past interview he has described himself as a 'working class Tory'.

'I'm a great believer in the big society and bringing solutions to society,' he said. 'The idea pre-dates Cameron. Cameron took it.'