All Is Not Well in Yorkshire's Learning Disabled Village

The charity that runs Botton village is being accused of harassing its residents, but they say they're doing nothing of the sort.

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26 November 2014, 12:00pm

The walled garden at Botton Hall in Botton village (Photo by Mick Garratt ​via)

Sarah is making pizza. She rolls out the dough, covers it with topping and puts it in the oven. Outside, life in the village seems normal. People are at work; some in workshops making glass or candles, some on the farm. 

Sarah (not her real name) is one of 130 people with a learning disability who live in Botton, a village in North Yorkshire that's also home to a large number of non-disabled "co-workers". Working in the bakery is part of a routine that keeps life structured and orderly for the "villagers". 

Today, however, something isn't quite right. Sarah takes the pizza out of the oven and puts it down, realising a moment later she's put it on a wooden tray instead of a metal one. Usually this wouldn't be a big deal; today, Sarah is worried.

Later, she writes a letter to one of her co-workers.

"I am feeling very nerves [sic] about things at work aspecally [sic] when I work in the bakery and the thing is if I accidentally make a mistake I am terrified that some one like Huw John or someone from CVT [Camphill Village Trust, the charity that runs Botton] will come up and say they want to talk to me [...] I find it hard to say that I have made a mistake and I feel nerves [sic] that I will get in trouble."

A letter written by "Sarah"

Sarah won't be in trouble for the pizza incident, but it's unsurprising she feels on edge. Over the course of the year, Botton has been embroiled in an increasingly nasty battle with the charity that runs it, the Camphill Village Trust (CVT), whose CEO, Huw John, Sarah mentions in her letter. This week, the situation has escalated, with the police being called about the alleged harassment and bullying of disabled residents by the charity's management.

The anger and accusations – which fly in both directions – are a far cry from the vision for Botton laid out by its founder, an Austrian refugee who created the community's prototype in Scotland in 1939, based on the be-nice-to-each-other-we're-all-equal principles of philosopher Rudolf Steiner. There are now 119 Camphill communities across the world and Botton is seen as their flagship, with a total population of 280 people who live, work, eat and sleep as families.

Having fled the Nazis, the founders of the original Camphill communities were clear that there should be no central authority; co-workers would live and work alongside those with disabilities on an equal footing. Co-workers have shared accommodation with residents since 1955, providing unpaid care in return for having their living costs covered. Now, co-workers have been told they must live separately and work on a paid shift basis. Those who resist have been threatened with eviction.

The upheavals began in 2011, when the Charity Commission and Care Quality Commission raised concerns over the administration of finances and suggested that residents weren't being given enough independence. For the last three years, however, reports have been glowing, and Botton now has approval from both boards. Despite this, CVT is forging ahead with the changes. Some co-workers have been served with eviction orders and several residents have already been removed by their families over concerns for their wellbeing.

A candlelit vigil in Botton (Photo via the ​Action for Botton Facebook group)

Residents have accused CVT of making them feel "thick and stupid" and of "spying" on them. The feeling that the charity is treating the learning disabled as pawns is strong within the community. In August, CVT attempted to stop residents from attending a candlelit vigil, claiming individual assessments were needed first. The charity has also enforced restrictions on allowing residents to talk to the press.

Anna Moore at Bindmans LLP, the lawyers acting for Botton residents, believes this is a breach of the Mental Capacity Act, which states that a person must be assumed to have capacity unless it's established otherwise.

"Sadly, my clients believe that this is a crude attempt to prevent them from speaking out about their concerns regarding the changes proposed by CVT," Moore said at the time of the vigil.

Botton residents

Since then, the situation has deteriorated even more. The report delivered to the police this week includes allegations that residents were followed, threatened and photographed against their will by CVT employees. Sarah says that, at one point, she was so frightened by the perceived threat of CVT she contacted, "The North Yorkshire police, the North Yorkshire air ambulance, the AA, the Royal Lifeboat and Buckingham Palace!"

North Yorkshire police confirmed that they've received complaints but not found evidence of criminal conduct by the charity's management. However, a spokesperson for Botton expressed concern that no statements had been taken from the residents making accusations.

"We've been made to feel like second-class citizens," I'm told. "Victims of the harassment – including the learning disabled and their co-workers, as well as the wider community – are saddened that their statements and accounts will not be taken and have requested an explanation from the police. The learning disabled residents who tried to make statements all have capacity to do so, as defined by the Mental Capacity Act."

For its part, CVT claims that the allegations are unfounded.

"The charity and its management has faced a public barrage of allegations and accusation in recent months, which we believe are part of an orchestrated wider campaign by some Botton co-workers and others to resist the changes needed," says CEO Huw John. "We are confident that there has been no bullying, harassment or mismanagement at Botton, and that there will be no police case to answer. All of the changes we have recently introduced have been part of reasonable and appropriate management of the charity."

Some co-workers wouldn't agree with this. Mark Barber, who lives in Botton with his children and two learning-disabled residents, claims he was told to leave his house with no notice. On the advice of lawyers, he's standing his ground, and CVT's claims that he was costing £65,000 a year seem to have been disproven by the charity's own recently-published accounts, which put the figure nearer £15,000.

(From left to right) Allan Hodson, Fionn Reid and Dan Francis

Dan Francis, a long-term resident with Down's Syndrome, is chatty and upbeat when I speak to him, excited that his birthday is coming up. He likes bird group, choir and Status Quo. He loves living with his Botton family in a house with younger children. Dan's mum is deeply concerned by what's happening to her son's home.

"If the proposed changes take place, Dan will become a dependent, learning disabled person living in a care home. He will not have the [same kind of] support and the continuity of care," she tells me. "He keeps telling his house parents that he doesn't want them to leave and asks for reassurance that they will stay. This is an impossible situation, immensely cruel for both house parents and Villagers."

Dan's mum fears that replacing his Botton house-parents with a rotation of care workers will leave her son lonely and disoriented. This is echoed by other family members I speak to. Botton is a special place, they say; the changes will destroy it, people's lives will be shattered.

Botton residents taking part in a tug-of-war

"There's a sense of unease, nervousness, a smatter of fear now," says co-worker Fionn Reid. "But on top of the worry and anxiety, you have to get on and make sure that the people you're there to support and have chosen to share a life with are OK. It's inspirational in a way, because it really nails down why you're here and why you chose to do it.

"I can say with confidence that, for everyone facing eviction, the one thing that will be worse than losing their house and having to find a new job is the ending of what Botton was created for. The destruction of an ethos."

Botton has long been held up as an example of a community that is, by all accounts, more generous and caring than any recognisable part of Cameron's Big Society. So it's hard not to see this as a battle between myopic public-sector management mentality and real but workable idealism. Is there really no space left for ways of living that fall outside the ever-tightening net of regulation?

Allan Hodson has lived at Botton since suffering a brain injury 27 years ago. "When it's running smooth it's very nice," he says. "Now there's lots of stress in the house. It's been hard. It would be nice to see things back to normal. This is a happy family, not a sad family."

​@frankiemullin

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