Sir Peter Vardy DL and Lady Margaret Vardy

Vision, drive, a strong Christian faith, a well-endowed family foundation and a flair for building effective systems has led Sir Peter Vardy to deliver philanthropic projects on a grand scale. Sir Peter has been a sponsor of five City Technology Colleges and City Academies in the North of England that have received Ofsted ratings from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’. Now, mirroring the scaling feat which took his retail car business from one rural garage and six staff, to 100 garages and 6000 staff across the UK, Sir Peter is creating an initiative to help thousands of families in crisis by marshalling 100,000 volunteers “to do for a stranger what they would do for a friend”.

The Safe Families for Children (SFFC) programme will be, says Sir Peter, “one of the most transformative initiatives this country has seen by creating a route for people to get involved in social action. It will cut the number of children going into care which for all too many is the start of a journey into offending and a life destroyed”. Sir Peter saw this for himself when visiting a young offenders’ institute and learning that 60% of inmates had been in the care system.

“As in business, I wanted to find a solution to the cause rather than deal with the symptoms,” says Sir Peter. Research led him to a Chicago-based initiative that in some areas has halved the number of children going into care by using community ‘befrienders’. With his own money, he piloted the American model through local authorities in the North East of England with great success. Now with match funding from the Department for Education’s Innovation Fund (IF), Sir Peter is rolling out the programme in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, East and West Midlands and the Solent, as well as in Scotland and Wales.

Families experiencing difficulties are given support and space to address their problems by “an army of volunteers” who befriend parents, host children for short periods of time and provide services such as debt counselling, as well as donating goods such as furniture, toys and clothes. After receiving the service for free in the first year, funded by the IF, local authorities are asked to contribute around £50,000 (the same cost as putting one child into care) to help pay for full-time staff to manage the volunteers.

One local authority estimates that the first year saving will exceed £1.4m. With over 93,000 children taken into care in 2014, the potential savings to the public purse are enormous and the support to keep families together will be invaluable. The aim is for SFFC to be rolled out across the UK within 10 years. Sir Peter is also a passionate supporter of people as they leave prison, homeless people or those suffering the effects of substance abuse. The Vardy Foundation partnered with Betel International to set up Betel House in Hexham in September 2011. It provides each person with a home, a community to belong to and meaningful work: “a fresh start in life with no waiting, no costs and no addictive substances,” explains Sir Peter.

As a ‘custodian’ of wealth, Sir Peter believes he has a responsibility to give something back: “I have been very fortunate in growing my company. I have enjoyed a period of success and now for the remainder of my life my aim is to have a period of significance, improving the lives and the life chances for as wide a range of society as possible.”