4 Feb 2015

Unique learning disabled community at war over modernisation

A community based on love, sharing and respect is rocked by a bitter dispute about how to modernise the care it offers the learning disabled residents who share lives with career volunteers.

Botton Village in North Yorkshire. The flagship Camphill community – where the learning disabled work, rest and play with their carers. Where what’s called “shared living” first began 70 years ago. Where a very modern dispute is tearing this unique community apart.

Set up in the UK in the 1940s by escapees from the Nazis, keen to show that learning disabled people could lead fulfilling and purposeful lives, these communities have “career volunteers” who share housing and food with residents, and are paid only expenses rather than a salary.

But workers who have been challenging fundamental changes being introduced by new management are now threatened with eviction. Deadline – the end of this tax year.

Many of Botton’s learning disabled residents are deeply upset that what they see as the essence of Camphill – living in the same homes as the long term volunteer carers they call family – is soon to end. And it is surely what Botton’s learning disabled residents want that ultimately matters.

So why has this community – carers and management – allowed this to happen? Mud has been slung by both sides.

Management – the Camphill Village Trust (CVT) – say Botton had ceased to be run in the best interests of its residents. Not so, say many workers – who accuse CVT of bulldozing their way through Camphill’s most venerated traditions.

Modern standards

The care community – the Charity Commission, The Care Quality Commission, and North Yorkshire County Council – say Botton is one of several Camphill communities that had to modernise. That it was not meeting the necessary standards.

Residents at Newton Dee, Aberdeenshire

Residents at Newton Dee, Aberdeenshire

Elsewhere some of the 36 Camphill communities around the UK have indeed changed with the times, yet retained what makes them unique: shared living.

So why is this core principle seemingly being eroded at Botton? Some workers – who have formed a campaign group called Action for Botton – say they believe CVT, which runs nine Camphills, has not tried hard enough to keep it.

Bad blood

Both sides refute allegations made about them – and blame the other for the breakdown in relations. At the centre of it – the learning disabled residents, who are produced by both sides to defend their point of view, making it hard for an outsider to sift fact from fiction.

Action for Botton say the Camphill Village Trust proactively sought justifications from the tax authorities, in order to force career volunteers to become conventional employees.

The campaigners describe the changes as akin to working conventional care shifts: living separate lives, in separate accomodation. And they say this is a vision of a very ordinary care facility – the very antithesis of Camphill’s founding principles.

What’s more, they claim CVT has fabricated safeguarding alerts to evict uncompliant staff members.

Enforced separation?

We spoke to several Botton residents. Some of them are already living under the new “employed” model of shift care. CVT arranged for us to speak to one man who said he was happy with the arrangement. And the parents of some residents told us their experience was that employed carers are more focused – and for their family members things at Botton have in fact improved.

But other residents accuse CVT of failing to ask them how they want to live, saying they have become ill just thinking about being forced to separate from their Camphill families. Some go on to make troubling allegations of CVT.

Lawyers for these residents say there has potentially been criminal wrongdoing and they claim some feel harrassed and intimidated by CVT. One group has even reported the Trust to the police, accusing them of preventing them from attending meetings, and warning them against talking to the media.

CVT say these claims are simply not true. And that they represent just one side of this sad, sad tale.

Opaque finances

CVT claim they have proof that a cabal of volunteer workers was awarding itself excessive expenses – allegations which are strenuously denied.

CVT say it wasn’t only them, but also a whistleblower who asked the taxman to investigate questionable payments. Over time, CVT says, the community’s finances had become opaque and they were concerned about the number of low-level safeguarding concerns.

What’s more, say CVT, as the bad blood deepened over the last few years, Action for Botton became intransigent. That Action doggedly, even aggresively resisted neccessary modernisation. That they may even have been manipulating residents in order to protect the status quo.

It has left relations at an all time low – in a community based on love, sharing, and respect. So, where on earth does Botton go from here?

Unanswered questions

The modern care environment demands greater accountability. The shocking abuse of residents at the Winterbourne View care facility was a watershed moment for care providers up and down the country, and they are understandably nervous.

But at Botton there is a local reality. In addition to the concerns about quality of care – Botton has been dragged into an apparently intractable labour dispute – which arguably could have been dealt with as exactly that. Workers versus management. But the dispute has also ended up pitting worker against worker.

There are so many unanswered questions about this sorry state of affairs.

CVT accuse the career volunteers who oppose change, of having their heads in the sand.

But did CVT end up doing the same?

Has CVT really fought hard enough to retain what is special about Camphill? Did Camphill Village Trust – the people who are meant to be in charge – lose sight of what really matters – the welfare and happiness of Camphill’s vulnerable residents?

And what will happen on 5 April – when CVT has told Action for Botton they must accept the new conditions, or leave.