Back Page: A country cure for city children

Sheffield: Should the lottery benefit pampered pigs or battered women? A farm in the Peak District that helps deprived and handicapped children provides an interesting case
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was the five-star hotel for pigs which was the final straw. Britain's only national 24-hour helpline for battered women announced this week that it may have to close after being refused a National Lottery grant. To make matters worse, the sum it needed was the same as the Lottery awarded to a pig farm to build luxury pens for 24 porkers, with underfloor heating and snout-operated showers. Supporters of the crisis line, including Ruby Wax, Helena Kennedy QC and the former hostage John McCarthy, protested at a world in which battered women were less important than pampered pigs.

If only life were so simple. There can be little doubt as to the value of the helpline, run by the domestic-violence charity Refuge, which is staffed 365 days a year to refer threatened women to 200 refuges throughout the country. It is run from a light modern office not far from the Embankment, in London, its walls covered with maps showing the nation's refuges and their current bed availability. There, one of its 95 volunteer telephone counsellors, a woman named Vivian, who is by day a secretary with a firm of kitchen installers, gave an account of the grim world she encounters down the line.

"Something like a third of the calls are from a payphone after a woman has walked out with the children and just the clothes they stand in, with nothing more than 20p in her pocket and nowhere to stay for the night," she said. "Some of the accounts make you want to weep - like the woman who was woken up at midnight and punched in the nose because she hadn't cleaned out the aquarium, or the man who lined his children up on the sofa to watch him beat up their mother."

How could a pig unit compete with that, I wondered as I drove up to Whirlow Hall Farm, which lies at the foot of the Peak District; its 130 acres produce sheep, cattle, barley, soft fruit, potatoes, carrots and other veg. But it is also just four miles from Sheffield city centre and it is run by a charity whose aim is to give disabled and disadvantaged children a taste of country life.

As I arrived, six children with severe physical handicaps, from Oakes Park School, in the city, were emerging from The Barn, in whose 12 purpose-built rooms they had stayed overnight with four teachers. "We got stuck yesterday on that steep hill on the bikes," one youngster rushed out and blurted with wild enthusiasm. He pointed to the hill, which was the gentlest of inclines, albeit a little slippy with mud. "Just walking on different surfaces is an adventure for these children," explained one of the teachers, Pauline Galbraith, as she rallied the group for an expedition of pond-dipping. "Children who come to stay here talk about it for years to come."

In the field nearby, one of the adults with severe learning disabilities employed by the farm was unwinding a bale of wire. Over at the greenhouses, students from Loxley Centre - slow learners in their twenties for whom the commercial world would have no use - were painting the glass to stop the plants inside overheating in the unseasonably hot spring sunshine. In the vegetable garden half a dozen teenagers from Talbot Special School were engaged in activities from meticulous weeding to aimless hoe-waving.

Watching them, a youth called William sat in a wheelchair and gurgled. "He's happy. That's singing," explained his teacher, Kerry Longden. "When he's angry - like this morning - he bites you. But he's much better now. His mother says he's a different person when he's had a day at the farm. Pupils who have no success in the schoolroom find a sense of achievement here. Some are great weeders, others are adept at picking soft fruit, others push wheelbarrows, others feed the animals. There's something which gives each of them a confidence which carries over into their general attitude back at school." Which is why everyone at the farm was taken aback by the vehemence of the reaction to their lottery grant.

Whirlow Hall has, until now, been used only to receiving plaudits from the local press and from businesses such as BT and Sainsbury's, which sponsor it - not to mention the praise of dozens of volunteers who give their time to the farm.

"We just weren't expecting the criticism," said local businessman Alan Aikin, who chairs the Farm Trust. "We applied for money from a different lottery category to the women's refuge. So the comparison is unfair." Nor are they asking for funding for running costs, as the Refuge is, but only for a start-up grant.

"Once we get going, the profits from pig sales will be enough to cover our costs."

That highlights the problem Refuge has run up against. It too received a lottery start-up grant in 1996. But it has been rejected in its application for a further pounds 597,000 over the next three years. It was not that Refuge failed to appreciate the lottery's distinction between one-off project funding and ongoing revenue funding, said its chief executive, Sandra Horley, but they had to re- apply. "It was our only option. Our backs were up against the wall. This is a life-and-death issue for many desperate women."

There is clearly a policy issue here. The National Lottery Charities Board is now the biggest grant-maker in Europe. It already courts controversy, because the process by which charities apply for cash is so complicated that expert consultants can charge vast fees to help complete the application form. Refuge spent pounds 7,000 processing its application. To add to the rows, the board does not disclose the training or qualifications of its assessors. And it then rejects four out of five applications without explanation. It is "a kangaroo court with no right of appeal" according to Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the schizophrenia charity SANE, which has been rejected by the Lottery three times now.

But the Refuge row reveals a more deep-seated problem. "They should take some responsibility for ensuring that what they start continues," said Ms Horley. Yet unlike a government, which is stuck with the fact that its spending on public services must continue 90 per cent unaltered year- on-year, the lottery is doomed by its constant need for publicity to emphasise novelty rather than continuity. "How can you run a social service on this hand-to-mouth basis?" asks Ms Horley.

Back at the farm, two eight-year-olds were discussing whether a pig unit was needed. The boys were from Porter Croft Junior, where most children, said their teacher, Ann Booth, had never spent a night away from home before. "They are from a very poor working-class inner-city area. Many are from single-parent families. And for many English is a second language." The majority had never been on holiday and many had never been to the countryside.

So the boys' analysis on the pig unit was a measure of the achievement of the three days they were there. "What pigs need," pronounced one, named Crewe, "is a swimming pool and a scratching- wall." Akim, his classmate, added: "And a warm place to sleep - and a toilet." Which is pretty much what the new lottery unit will provide, along with access for children in wheelchairs to feed the pigs.

News of the disabled and disadvantaged children at the pig unit placated Ms Horley only momentarily.

"Perhaps there is an argument for that award," she acknowledged, "but what about the pounds 180,000 the lottery has given to a bereaved pet owners' helpline?"

Yes, I agreed, that sounded terrible. But perhaps, I decided, it would be best not to make the mistake of going there to find out.

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