A year ago, I posted an article about the struggle for the soul of Botton Village, a remarkable but unconventional ‘intentional community’ of some 200 learning disabled and volunteer ‘co-workers’ living and working together in a tucked-away hollow of the North Yorks moors. I won’t retell the full story here, but in brief the issue is one of baby and bathwater: can a successful but unusual 60-year-old care model survive a box-ticking, politically correct care world, and in particular the attentions of its own management, drafted in from outside to make Botton and Camphill Village Trust’s other communities look more ‘normal’ to its funders and regulators?
It’s a perverse and tragic case of an organisation divided against itself. While most organisations would die for the kind of passionate support that the Camphill model engenders among its beneficiaries and their families, CVT managers seem bent instead on extinguishing the ethos of shared living and collaborative management that is the source of that commitment. Changes have been pushed through that leave co-workers feeling marginalised and in some cases bullied, with the result that many have left, in effect turning some CVT communities into little more than standard care homes that are certainly easier to manage according to a conventional rule-book but show little trace of the founding Camphill principles that have spawned successful communities all over the world or of an increased happiness dividend in return – in fact the reverse.
Here’s the nub. Running a community full of vulnerable people with complex needs is a daily balancing act. Ensuring that residents are safe and winning the confidence of regulators and funders are obviously essential. And that, as regulators confirm, has now been achieved. But as supporters insist, what makes Camphill unique – and why it arouses such extraordinary passion – is what it does beyond keeping residents safe and ticking funders’ boxes. That extra is largely provided by the co-workers and their families ‘who made Camphill what it is’. ‘Camphill is more than the sum of its parts, and a system that only feeds the parts isn’t going to get the X-factor,’ says a parent. Being discretionary, however, the extra can’t be summoned up by management command, and it can’t be accessed at all by those who don’t understand or empathise where it comes from. ‘Putting non-sympathisers in charge is a bit like installing an atheist as archbishop of Canterbury’, says another relative. What were the trustees who appointed them thinking?
Hence today's impasse. But residents, parents and many co-workers have not changed their mind about what they value, nor are they giving up on Botton, the centre of resistance, without a fight. Although the story has been studiously ignored by all the national press save The Guardian, Private Eye is on the case (listen to Heather Mills’ excellent podcast summary here), and a vigorous Action for Botton campaign group has drummed up vociferous local and national support as well as the interest of 30 MPs, including care minister Norman Lamb and David Cameron. Green MP Caroline Lucas has put down an Early Day Motion on Botton for debate in Parliament.
The campaign groups have also taken the matter to court. To simplify, while one case arguing that CVT’s actions amounted to a breach of Botton residents’ human right to family life was rejected, a separate agreement with a ‘reluctant’ CVT reached in the High Court at the beginning of May allows a modified version of shared living to continue pending formal legal mediation, due to take place in the next two months. If mediation fails, the High Court will hear a claim by 23 claimants that CVT trustees are acting ‘ultra vires’, that is exceeding the powers allotted them in the charity’s Memorandum and Articles, by attempting to abolish shared-living and collaborative management arrangements contrary to the core principles that the board is supposed to nurture. Legal concern has also been expressed over whether the charity’s membership roll has been used to influence voting and over the opacity of its finances. In giving permission for the case to go to court, the Charities Commission voiced disappointment at CVT’s refusal to accept mediation until compelled to by the authorisation of court proceedings.
Where does that leave things now? The CVT management juggernaut has certainly been slowed, and the slap on the wrist by the Charities Commission may represent a cautious change of attitude by a body that in the past has shown more interest in protecting its own back than underlying principles. But the momentum hasn’t been halted, and given the utterly different operating philosophies of the two sides, it’s hard even to imagine what a negotiated compromise might look like. So lengthy and expensive litigation is a real possibility. Meanwhile the war of attrition on Botton’s way of life goes on, with unsettling daily consequences for those least able to resist or cope with them.
The stakes are high, and not just for vulnerable individuals and their families. As well as a tragedy in its own right, Botton is a microcosm of public service caught between a defensive, regulatory state on one side and voracious commercial outsourcers on the other, both focused on delivering the same mass-produced, lowest-common-denominator services at minimum cost. What price then a frugal Camphill that circumvents these constraints by adopting a diametrically different approach; where residents think of their communities as families, not care homes, and co-workers qualify the 24-hour care that they in effect provide not as work but family life? If Botton didn't exist, it would have to be reinvented.
Doubtless without intending to, CVT's trustees landed the charity in today's awful mess. The coming mediation gives them a chance to put it right. By changing their minds and standing up for what they must know in their hearts to be thr right thing for the individuals in the charity's care, trustees and CVT management have an opportunity also to raise the standard for a better, more human kind of public service – a worthy update of the ambition of Botton's founders in the first place.