Case study: From service users to customers

Thurrock Lifestyle Solutions is set to be the first social enterprise to be set up within a local authority disability provider.

Following a government white paper in 2001, Thurrock Council in Essex began working towards giving disabled people greater control over the care they received. The numbers supported into paid work was expanded, and a centre was established to help them develop skills in managing their own activities. Five years on, provider services manager Neil Woodbridge felt the organisation was ready take another step forward.

The process
Woodbridge approached advocacy group Speaking Up to consult with users of Thurrock’s disabled services. The feedback prompted him to recommend a new structure with a board of directors consisting entirely of service users.

Although Woodbridge - who used to juggle running a record company with charity work in London - already had a social enterprise structure in mind, he judged it wise to move slowly. “I wanted people to see it as a positive step and not be forced into it,” he says.

Over the next eighteen months, 155 disabled people were trained to elect seven directors, each of whom was given a specific portfolio and was supported by a mentor from the council.

Woodbridge also used that period to “flatter” councillors around to his way of thinking, as well as to “grow my own champions” within the organisation. He held individual interviews with his staff, ostensibly to talk about their jobs. “In reality, I was thinking ‘good egg – bad egg’: working out who was up for it and who wasn’t,” he explains.

Having identified his champions, he took care to give them “tasks to do with the future of the business. Almost by osmosis they have ended up taking senior roles because they are deliverers.”

Various governance structures for the new user-led service were formally considered, including a charity or a company limited by guarantee, before a CIC was settled on. Councillors were swayed by the government’s growing enthusiasm for social enterprise and the potential to apply for grants aimed at fostering them - though Woodbridge himself was driven more by hostility to the whole idea of charity.

“I’m for disabled rights, not charity,” he says. “I don’t want people giving money because they feel sorry for them. I want to start calling disabled people our customers.”

Even with his go-slow policy, Woodbridge admits that the decision to form a CIC “rattled a lot of cages” in Thurrock Council. In his three-year business plan, he has moved to address concerns raised by a further consultation, offering guarantees on the quality of support for carers and the employment conditions for staff transferring to the new company.

The asset lock required by the CIC structure means that if the company goes bankrupt its assets and staff will revert to council control. However, to mitigate ongoing worries about the financial risks of splitting away from the council, Woodbridge has agreed that the council should retain control of the company’s budget for a “shadow year” while the new board of directors take over decision-making.

When Thurrock Lifestyles Solutions is formally registered later this year it will be the first in the country to be set up within a local authority disability provider. Start-up costs will be partly met by a successful bid for a £126,000 DOH social enterprise pathfinder grant.

Regarding the twin perils of being accused of tokenism on the one hand (with the directors being mere puppets of their mentors) or irresponsibility on the other (putting people with learning difficulties in charge of large amounts of taxpayers’ money) Woodbridge is sanguine. “We’ll get accused of tokenism – that’s inevitable,” he concedes. “But I’m passionate about making this real. As for a possible public backlash, that would be an interesting battle to fight, but I don’t think it will come to that. Some people look at me and say ‘are you mad? They can’t do it’. But most people are basically supportive.”

Woodbridge even hopes to pay the directors for their two-and-a-half-day weekly commitment at a similar level to councillors. Nor would he rule out expanding the company beyond Thurrock, or moving into other areas of social provision such as PCTs.

“I’m an entrepreneur – that’s what I am,” says Woodbridge. “I don’t want to take over the world but if something comes up where our model could be applied I’d be interested.”

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