Flying the flag earns scorn of social workers

Idyll under threat: Dorrell intervenes to stop removal of village's red pillar and post box
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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

The Union Flag fluttering in the breeze, a shop, a red phone box and an old-fashioned pillar box. These may evoke a cosy image of rural Britain, along with cricket on the village green, but for one group of social services inspectors they were too much.

A handicapped centre in Cumbria, which had created this idyll for its residents, to make them feel secure and part of an often unfriendly country, was advised to remove these harmless symbols of village life. There was more. Down too, should come the names chosen by the centre for the bungalows in its grounds - names like Peace, Love, Trust and Hope, deliberately chosen to make the residents feel secure and wanted.

The ensuing row between Barrow & District Spastic & Handicapped Society, which runs The Croft home in Barrow-in-Furness, and Cumbria Social Services, was part of a wider dispute which went all the way to Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health.

When Mr Dorrell intervened, in the words of Dennis Rose, the handicapped society chairman, there was "a dramatic change in the attitude" of the social workers. All the items which social services found unacceptable were dropped, namely, wrote Mr Rose in a letter to Peter Thurnham MP, whose son, Stephen, attends The Croft: "Flagpole, telephone kiosk, letter-box and names on bungalows."

Two years ago, The Croft became the first handicapped centre in Britain to create "a village" for its 23 adult residents. Instead of them living in one building, the Society built four separate six-bedroomed bungalows in the grounds, to give them a sense of liberty. "At last they could live independently and have a sense of freedom while being in carefully nursed surroundings," said Mr Rose.

To create a village atmosphere, a flagpole was installed in the middle, with a pay-phone in a proper red box and a post box. A kiosk selling sweets, crisps and soft drinks was built, together with a communal meeting-cum- snooker room and TV lounge. The bungalows were given their innocuous names and the meeting room was named after Mr Rose's late wife, Teresa, who had herself been a driving force behind The Croft. Paid for by voluntary funds, it cost pounds 850,000.

Late last year, social services paid an unannounced visit, said Mr Rose, and declared they "did not like the names, did not like the phone box, did not like the post box, did not like the flagpole and did not like the club house being named after my wife."

It was, said Mr Rose, "bureaucracy gone mad". The flag was a particularly sore point since he had served in the Second World War. "I am proud of the Union Flag and I wanted it flying proudly in the village - not least because it helps to acquaint people with learning difficulties about their flag and their country."

There was nothing sinister about the names for the bungalows, either. "Peace, Love, Trust and Hope are four very important words for handicapped people," said Mr Rose.

Jean Bradshaw, head of Quality Assurance for Cumbria Social Services, said their objections centred on The Croft's philosophy. "Our concern is that people should be encouraged to be integrated into the local community as much as possible.

"In any setting we want people to be integrated. Our worry is that people weren't being given the opportunity to join in normal facilities," said Ms Bradshaw. It was better that the residents used the local phone and post box rather than those in their "village".

She admitted that Mr Dorrell was involved in "some discussions" but denied he forced a change of heart. In a joint statement last night, Cumbria Social Services and Mr Rose said any problems between them had been "resolved very amicably".