Village dedicated to special needs under threat

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The Independent Online

Charles Sarle takes a break from weeding the vegetable garden and looks across the valley. Some of his friends are milking cows, others can be heard making furniture in the craft workshop. The smell of homemade bread wafts from Alan Leiper's bakery and the community's organic food store is doing a brisk trade.

Charles Sarle takes a break from weeding the vegetable garden and looks across the valley. Some of his friends are milking cows, others can be heard making furniture in the craft workshop. The smell of homemade bread wafts from Alan Leiper's bakery and the community's organic food store is doing a brisk trade.

"I love my home," Mr Sarle said. "I have lived here for 22 years. But my friends and I are worried about the future." He points to the faint outline of a drilling-rig in the mist. "We can't understand why they want to build a busy road right through our village."

Home for Charles and 180 other adults and children is the Camphill Community, a Rudolf Steiner centre for people with special needs, set in the lush Dee Valley on the outskirts of Aberdeen. Camphill was the brainchild of Karl Konig, a Viennese pediatrician who fled the Nazis in 1939. For 65 years, staff and volunteers here have helped to create a secure and peaceful haven for thousands of people, like Mr Sarle, who would find it difficult to cope with life in the mainstream.

But today's residents are fighting to save their home from being destroyed to make way for a bypass. The Scottish Executive, which is financing the project, is threatening the community with legal action to gain access to the site for surveying.

Life in Camphill bears more resemblance to a kibbutz than a care facility; everybody has a stake in how the village is run and people are encouraged to lead independent and fulfilling lives. The home is credited with playing a leading role in changing social attitudes towards those with learning disabilities. The Aberdeen estate has expanded as a centre for curative education, but the movement has expanded worldwide to include 90 centres in 21 countries.

Yet if road chiefs have their way, the £120m dual carriageway, which forms part of north-east Scotland's long-term transport strategy to reduce congestion and encourage economic benefits, will be built through the heart of this community. The proposed route will dissect the two Camphill complexes of Newton Dee and Murtle, coming within 50 metres of the bedroom windows of severely autistic children.

Residents and workers fear that if their campaign to have the road rerouted fails, the presence of the bypass and a 14m-high steel bridge across the river Dee will be devastating. "If the road is not diverted past Camphill, we know that our community won't survive," Dr Stefan Geider, a GP at the village, says. "Surveying work has begun in earnest and already we are seeing how this is distressing the residents."

Dr Geider said the natural landscape and tranquillity was an essential backdrop for the community's work. "This route will destroy not just the quality of life, but the holistic tools we use to work with the children. "The therapeutic environment at Camphill depends on the calm atmosphere for the residents, who are often over-sensitive and stressed by noise, and many of them have sleeping difficulties and other complex needs." Loud noises cause some severely autistic residents violent muscle spasms, Dr Geider said.

At present, many villagers wander freely around the site but the development could mean some adults would need constant supervision. "Years of nurturing independence for our residents would be wiped away," Dr Geider said.

Jeremy Paxman, the Newsnight anchorman who has visited the community, said: "If the road was going to be routed across an old battlefield, or through a hedgehog sanctuary, there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth, protests from eco-warriors and the rest. They should find somewhere else to put their road." Other supporters include Trudie Goodwin, an actress in The Bill, whose sister-in-law stays at the centre and the former children's television presenter Timmy Mallet, whose brother Martin is a Camphill resident.

Preliminary work on the bypass has begun and drilling rigs and trucks are dotted around. The Scottish Executive's threat to take the community to court has outraged supporters. The Herald, based in Glasgow, accused the Executive of "crass insensitivity", saying the site was "of special human interest and must be saved". The newspaper added: "The Executive said it hopes to reach agreement but as a last resort ministers are entitled by law to access the land."

Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Minister for Transport, and local MP, said no final decision has been made and that the Executive was committed to paying special consideration to the circumstances of Newton Dee.

Gideon Cowen, a dairy farmer and care worker in the village, said: "The children are fascinated by traffic. Some are frightened of it but most have no understanding of how dangerous it can be. But why build on this land? Perhaps the road chiefs thought a centre for vulnerable people would be the line of least resistance. They were wrong."

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