Rowde villagers joined for a socially distanced and peaceful protest today, in the centre of the village to show their support for the Save Furlong Close campaign.
More show of solidarity than protest, if “protest” is now a dirty word and standing up for your rights is to be considered illicit. It was good to meet those heading this campaign to deflect the closing of Furlong Close, home to 36 vulnerable adults with learning disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism and epilepsy.
Reflecting on a thought I’d said in previous articles on this campaign, campaign leader Trish specified how the residents of Furlong Close were a big part of the village community and would be missed if it was to close down. We also discussed that while the red tape between Wiltshire Council and the owning charity HFT continues, the opinions of both locals and residents are being ignored.
We’ve covered the tragic plans on Devizine at length, in the past; hearing direct from Mark Steele, a member of the campaign’s steering group, who has family at Furlong Close. The Gazette & Herald ran an edition with a wrap-around page campaign, and over a staggering 44,000 have signed the petition, therefore I do not wish to go over the same ground. We know this is a terrible decision, we are aware the residents do not wish to be dispersed and move into isolated and lonely single accommodations they’re unfamiliar with, we only need a workable solution.
Yet with the backing of many local councillors, Anna Cuthbert and Lib Dem candidate for Bromham, Rowde and Roundway, Mark Mangham in attendance today, the backing of the media, and in particular, the local people, I sincerely hope we can turn this around and end on a feel-good story. The show of hope and solidarity today proves this is possible. Mark said it was, “humbling to be among the campaigners, many related to residents and from beyond Wiltshire. Many Rowde residents are volunteers. This is what community feels like!”
It has been some time since we’ve covered the disgraceful fiasco at Rowde’s Furlong Close, where residents with learning disabilities face closure of the HFT site, their home, and undefined, separated relocation.
The reason being, the situation had fallen into a political stalemate, as HFT ceased all dealings with Wiltshire Council. It seems HFT are no strangers to closing sites down, and equally Wiltshire Council’s reaction is lacklustre. I cannot decide who is really to blame in all this, but something certainly doesn’t add up; perhaps they’re both as bad as each other, and the clock is ticking for May 19th when closure is planned. You know me, I’ve been concerned my anger at this issue will lead me to publish speculation, and the last thing I want is put forth misleading information.
Now, it seems, via a Tweet from The Save Furlong Close campaign group, in a memo released on Easter Sunday, Wiltshire Council Leader, Philip Whitehead advised councillors and future Conservative candidates to block all correspondence with Save Furlong Close Campaigners, in fear it’s being used as “an election matter.”
This is very concerning, while both sides battle the politics out, the Save Furlong Close campaigners are merely worried for the future prospects for the residents there, and least deserve a voice. So, I’m pleased to be able to publish an article, by Mark Steele, a member of the campaign’s steering group, which outlines the history and current situation.
I merely offer to endorse their rightful campaign and promote it as much as possible. If then, residents of Furlong Close are indeed moved out, it will be a terrible day for Wiltshire, and a shameful reflection on a county council, but if this happens and I stood there and did nothing, it’s a shame I would partly bear too, and I have no intentions of that happening. I hope our readers and supporters will agree, and I fully believe, with the permissions of the campaign group, we need to arrange a socially distanced peaceful protest, as soon as feasible. So, WHO IS WITH ME? Watch this space, but here’s Mark’s outline of the happenings in Rowde.
SAVE FURLONG CLOSE
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
For the last 30 years, Furlong Close has been home to 36 vulnerable adults with learning disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism and epilepsy. The residents live in 5 bungalows in a cul-de-sac at the edge of the village of Rowde, sharing a community hall, workshops and gardens (including a market garden and pens for sheep and rabbits). It is a short walk to the centre of Rowde and a short bus ride to Devizes. Many of the residents have lived at Furlong Close for more than 20 years. They are happy and settled, have formed life-long friendships and are a close and caring community.
In October last year, however, it was announced that Hft (the charity which owns and operates the site) and Wiltshire Council (which funds the majority of the residents) had “jointly” decided that everyone was to be “moved on” by June 2021, the site shut down and the land sold off for development. The shocked families were told that there would be no consultation or discussion; it was a “done deal”.
Already reeling from the emotional impact of the pandemic and cut off from the support of their families, the residents were fearful and anxious. Their disabilities make change extremely stressful for them and being forcibly evicted from their home of 20+ years would cause them great trauma and distress. For some, the trauma would be life-shortening. My cousin, David, who has lived at Furlong Close for 18 years, was left in fear of the future and telephoned his 95-year-old mother, Audrey, many times a day, often in tears, to ask her where he would go and who would look after him. Sadly, Audrey passed away in March, spending the last months of her life wracked with worry about what would happen to her beloved and vulnerable only child (https://twitter.com/savefurlongcl/status/1374671484187242507).
So, why is Furlong Close facing closure? At first, Hft and the Council said it was “not about money”, but was only about doing the best for the residents. It was said that “moving them on” from their settled and happy homes would be an “exciting opportunity” for them, but no-one could quite explain how breaking up a happy community and scattering them to new and strange places would be either “exciting” or an “opportunity”. Certainly, it was an “opportunity” which none of the residents or their families wanted. Subsequently, it became clear that it was in fact “all about money” after all, with Hft accusing the Council of grossly underfunding the site over many years and refusing to pay the full costs of care.
Faced with this cruel threat to the well-being of our vulnerable relatives, the families organised and the local community rallied to our cause. People became angry. 43,000 people, from Wiltshire and beyond, signed a petition. Legal proceedings were commenced by the family of one resident, to seek to have the decision set aside as a breach of her human rights.
Faced with this local anger, Wiltshire Council promptly threw Hft under the bus. It claimed that the “joint decision” was nothing to do with it, but solely a matter for Hft. Hft responded angrily, accusing the Council of “lying” and trying to “hide behind” it, and gave notice that it was withdrawing services, not just from Furlong Close, but from Wiltshire as a whole. With Hft and the Council each pointing the finger at the other, the situation deteriorated into what has recently been described by a judge in the pending legal proceedings as “a shambolic mess”.
As the clock ticks down to the termination of Hft’s contract for the site on 19 May, the residents and their families fear that we are being hung out to dry. Hft has offered the Council the chance to buy or lease the site and bring in another operator, but neither has taken decisive action to make this happen. Many suspect that the Council is just playing for time, to try and kick the can down the road until after the Council election in May. Meanwhile innocent and vulnerable people are suffering and the families are calling on Hft and Wiltshire Council to act now to save Furlong Close.
It was a wonderfully professional-looking cake, we bought for a birthday of yore, from the residents of the nearby facility for adults with learning disabilities, now known as HFT Rowde. Making this a tricky piece to balance. While one doesn’t want to criticise a charity, as villagers and townsfolk of Devizes rally to get a decision to close the facility by the central office of the charity HFT overturned, there’s a notion this is not in the best interest of the residents.
HFT divisional director Emma Bagley explained they have, “been supporting people at our residential, day and supported living services at Rowde, which is a campus site, for many years.” It has, in fact, been running the facility for only five out of twenty-eight years it has been active. Furlong Close was first opened in 1992 as Care (Cottage and Rural Enterprises Ltd,) which was pioneered by Peter Forbes in the sixties. The site endorsed an “independent living” model, revolutionary at the time, consisting of four purpose-built bungalows, each with two associated one-bed flats and it was made possible by a generous £1.25m gift from Birmingham’s the Dofra Masonic Lodge.
The director outlined, “it has long been recognised that campus sites (group homes clustered together in the same site and usually sharing staff and some facilities) do not offer the best outcomes for most people. Our regulator, CQC, and Wiltshire Council do not support this model of care and a campus style site would not be registered by CQC, should a provider propose to set one up now.” Causing me to ponder, in which case, why did they take it over in the first place, if it’s so unsuitable?
Some background notes provided by a relative of one of the residents considered of the “airy, spacious, and homely” purpose-built homes, made to accommodate wheelchair users, and each with private outdoor space as well as free access to the grounds, “demonstrated the Gold Standard of what care for learning disabled adults should look like. That vision stands today, but is being systematically destroyed by regulation and drastic underspending on adult social care over many years and governments.” Irrefutably, the grounds are idyllic in a desirable location, with a central hall for social events, and a horticulture workshop, chicken runs, an orchard and even a sheep grazing area. Rumoured in the village, HFT attempted to sell part of the land some years ago. Herein lies my understandable concern, and if you mess with anyone who made me a cake, you mess with me!
It’s as if HFT perceive the site as “Craggy Island,” some barren garrison cut off from the mainland. Yet villagers know as well as the excellent facilities used by residents, for day service users and training purposes, Rowde is not far from town, and the residents of Furlong Close are known and liked in the village. They are welcomed here and valued, often taking jobs in pubs and cafes, or cutting the churchyard grass. This is not an isolated, campus style residential care home, rather it is home, which many residents have lived in since it was built.
HFT expressed, “HFT and Wiltshire Council are committed to finding services that follow best practice and support people to live as independently as possible in smaller, community-based settings where people have more independence, choice and control over their lives.” Now, I ask you, is there anything I’ve outlined about life in Furlong close which would make you consider it not meeting these conditions?
“For this reason,” they continue, despite the grey area outlined, “we have made the decision to close our service at Rowde. The targeted closure date is the end of June 2021 after a careful transition process has taken place to support people to find new support. However, this is dependent on all of the people living at Rowde successfully moving to their new homes. Wiltshire Council and other out of county commissioners will be consulting with the people supported at Furlong Close to conduct a detailed assessment of their individual needs, to secure them a new home and/or support in line with their assessed needs and best interests.” Consulting, yes, consulting is good. Did anyone think to consult the actual people living there, you know, prior to the decision being made? Might’ve been a thoughtful option.
HFT make a point in saying, they’re “working closely with local authorities to support the ongoing assessment process. In addition to this we are closely monitoring the impact of the closure on the health and wellbeing of individuals.” Described akin to livestock here, the bombshell was delivered to residents, their family, and staff in the form of a letter, dated October 13th, preceded by some phone calls. Could they pinpoint Rowde on a map?
I apologise if I am slamming a charity doing great work with disabilities, their website glosses a firm and assertively caring approach, though my comments asking why on their Facebook page were promptly deleted, but I cannot see it another way. It is cruel and inhumane, a content and settled community of extremely vulnerable learning-disabled adults, some elderly and suffering from underlying health problems and dementia, are being turfed out of their homes to be relocated at the cost of the Council; something is fishy here. Is HFT a charity, or a business with an eye on a right good earner for WC?
I’ve had a similar issue with an eminent charity when I wanted to donate profits from a forthcoming book project. I was told I had to guarantee them a fixed donation or I would be liable for the rest, under the guise they have a corporate identity to uphold. I expressed concern the book would not raise the thousands they asked for, and I left feeling uneasy and upset, being more like a business deal than fundraising. Villager Mandy Humphreys has initiated a petition to get this decision overturned. She says “it’s very hard in this climate to effectively protest, no marches allowed, no properly public council meetings.”
I put my suspicions to Mandy, “it seems to me, HFT may be non-profit making, perhaps not, but it’s almost as if it’s a ‘business in disguise,’ they use a charity status to their advantage, as do public schools who collect as a charity then run a simple outreach program and get a better tax deal.”
“Exactly,” was the short answer, others I have spoken to rebuked it, thus it becomes political. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, and need to focus on the issue in hand.
“My question is,” Mandy sustained, “if HFT think this is in the best interests of the residents, then why are they not closing all their campus-based centres? The residents are really upset, some have lived there since it opened and were told that it was their home for as long as they needed it. Just awful.”
And it is too, I ponder, as I receive a friendly “morning” from a passing villager off for his morning walk, in which it would seem he counts every step he takes. He is resident at Furlong Close. He takes the same route every day, he is pleasant, always stops to talk. Though I fear putting him off his count if I chat, he takes a mental note of the number and initiates the conversation! He continues on his way. He seems content, appears happy. Please, please, sign this petition, whatever the reasoning, and while it is not for me to criticise those decisions made from professionals, something about this whole affair feels inhumane and ill-thought out regardless of if cruelty was the intention, or profit is on the agenda or not.