In the heart of the North York Moors is a village where the disabled and able-bodied live as one, but with change afoot, is the future of Botton under threat? Sarah Freeman reports.
There’s not a spare seat in the living room of Danby vicarage.
In one corner sits a retired solicitor, by the window is a mum, who has just driven to the middle of the North York Moors from Hull. Dotted around are half a dozen others who made this little corner of the county their home some years ago. They’re all from very different backgrounds, some have learning difficulties, some don’t, but they’re all here for the same reason. They’re worried that Botton village, just a mile or so up the road, is under threat.
Botton was founded in 1955 as a very different way of supporting people with learning difficulties. For the last 60 years the residents and the co-workers who support them have existed side-by-side. The properties dotted around the 600-acre site are shared, so is the work. Some choose to spend their mornings in the bakery. Others the creamery or organic seed factory. No one is paid.
Camphill Village Trust, which manages Botton along with eight other sites around the country, has announced it is planning to end the practice of unpaid co-workers and introduce salaried staff. The organisation insists it’s just an administrative change and that life will continue as normal, but there are those in Botton who fear the dynamic of the community will be altered forever.
“Botton has always been different, but they seem intent on making it like everywhere else,” says Fran Francis, whose 35-year-old son Dan has been living in the village for the last nine years. She’s one of the few willing to be identified. The rest fear that speaking out against the changes might earn them a black mark and it’s why we have met at the vicarage rather than at the village. “Dan has an independence here that at home he couldn’t even have dreamed of. At home he couldn’t have walked much beyond the end of the street without getting lost or straying into the road. Here he is free to wander around and there are always people looking out for him. He gets up, he goes to work in the bakery and the farm. Afterwards he might have dinner with friends. To all intents and purposes he has a normal life.
“I worry that the changes being proposed will turn Botton into a more traditional residential home. You will have the carers and those who are cared for. Suddenly the equality on which the village has always thrived will disappear and I fear those relationships which have been forged over many years will also disappear.”
The seeds of the current proposals can be traced back to a review carried out by the Care Quality Commission. A report published in 2012 reported “serious concerns about the lack of proper control by the trustee body” at Botton as well as an “inadequacy of record keeping”, in regards to the co-worker benefits. The report also queried whether the residents (not a word those who live at Botton use) had sufficient personal choice under the current regime.
“Changes did need to happen and things did need to be tightened up,” says Fran. “But every point raised by the CQC was dealt with. All that needed was a few tweaks.”
However, in May the 250 or so Botton residents - around 98 of whom have special needs - were informed by CVT that more fundamental change was planned. As well as introducing salaried staff, working on a set shift pattern, they were also told the shared properties would be split into separate accommodation.
“The reason the village works is because we live as families,” says one of the co-workers who has been at Botton for a number of years. “We work together, we socialise together. We are just there for each other. We never clock on or clock off. At Botton there has never been any connection between the amount of work you do and monetary reward. It is about us all coming together and working for the community as a whole. The first time I came here there was a very warm feeling about the place, but now there is a definite sense of unease.”
CVT has said that it is acting on advice from auditors, adding that if the changes aren’t made and the co-workers are found to be in effect employees, the trust would be in breach of law and liable to face heavy financial penalties.
However, as word spread, not just around the village, but further afield, residents of various remote communities joined together to form Action For Botton. Retired solicitor Neil Davidson has emerged as spokesman and while like many of the campaigners he as no personal connection with the site, he is determined to be a mouthpiece for others.
“There is something quite beautiful about Botton,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who aren’t prepared to see that destroyed by heavy handed bureaucracy. It just seems to me that these days people want everything to fit in neat boxes and when something doesn’t they take a sledgehammer to it.”
More than 250 people attended a recent public meeting in Danby organised by Action for Botton. At it, a statement, written by some of the co-workers, was read out. “In a world of loneliness and alienation,” it began. “Botton is living proof that modern mankind can recreate the bonds of community that makes us truly human. In a fast changing world, we must all run to keep up, but we lose our ideals at peril. We live together… we work together… we aspire together.. only with each other’s help do we rise above our prejudices and the disabilities we all suffer.”
It received a standing ovation, but CVT says the campaigners have clouded the issue.
“The people we support are - and always must be - at the heart of every decision we take,” says Huw John, CVT chief executive. “We understand some of the concerns that have been raised, but the changes that have been made don’t mean the end of our unique communities. Botton has always been a very special place and we are confident it will continue to be so. Several of our communities already operate successfully with employed co-workers and the changes have allowed people to have real choice about their lives.
“Claims that there have been no consultation are incorrect. We are in discussion with everyone affected by the changes on an individual basis. Whilst we appreciate the self-appointed pressure group’s concern for Botton, we feel their fears are misplaced and we do not recognise their role in this process.”
Action for Botton, however, has no plans to go quietly. An online petition has attracted more than 2,700 signatures and campaigners are now looking at whether it would be possible for Botton to exist without the support of CVT. Just as we’re about to leave the vicarage, one of the residents has a quiet word. She’s said nothing until now, but is keen her voice is heard.
“There’s something very special about Botton,” she says. “We don’t want it to be spoilt. All we want is a nice life.”