Neil Woodbridge, CEO of social enterprise Thurrock Lifestyle Solutions (TLS) writes about what it means to be a social enterprise on the front-line of social care, what it means to put people truly at the heart of how care is delivered, and the organisation’s incredible community centred response to COVID-19.

What is Thurrock Lifestyle Solitions all about? Tell us about your ethos and how you operate as a social enterprise being run by people with disabilities for others with disabilities?

Way back in 2007 we formed the Company in response to a realisation that instead of a local Authority led ‘Do for’ in provider services, we could truly hand the power over to a group of Disabled people as ‘Experts by Experience’. Being born with two ears and one mouth means we have learned to listen twice as much as speak. Our Directors all identify as disabled and were elected by their peers to control the company and develop highly individualised products that meet peoples’ aspirations and turn them from passive recipients of care to active citizens in control. Wrenching the old ‘Day Services’ from the Local Authority via some inspired Council Officers and Members we have grown the business together with our disabled colleagues – so that original ‘spin-out’ now represents just 40% of what we do. By 2020 we are supporting some 245 plus Customers with a turnover of £3.7M, we own 5 properties and employ over 130 staff.

What makes you different from other providers of care?

As a ‘not for profit’ we are led by our values and the social impact we can make. As a business we like to make profit that goes back to the community. Each year at our AGM you can vote for your top three charities and we donate £3k to each. At the same time our desire and ability to collaborate brings a great deal of additionality to the table. Supporting the establishment of a school of social enterprise, training local disabled people in how to stay safe in their community. We have four brand new flats for people with autism developed from  a partnership with a housing association and we actively campaign against the health inequalities suffered by people with learning disabilities and, influencing the CCG (clinical commissioning group) to change policy. We run large health awareness events and are involved with as many community projects as feasibly possible. And .. ummm – we are the cheapest provider of supported living too … turnover is vanity, social value is sanity.

Tell us a bit about some of the services you operate?

We have 5 properties from which we support disabled people to live the lifestyle of their choice, we run day opportunities from 5 buildings in the heart of their communities, we offer a choice of lifestyle assistants for people wanting support at home, we have purchased a home care service and are starting to modernise it, we collaboratively run a college course in enabling people into work, we run our own courses in money management, sex and sexuality and staying safe in the community aimed at people with learning disabilities, we have established a specialised service using applied behaviour analysis to support people with autism to live independent happy lives. We also run a series of houses that allow people to practice living independently in their community and find out what barriers they need removing and we run a ‘Handyperson’ service that goes around the Borough using a guy with learning disabilities to do little jobs for older citizens

thurrock lifestyle solutions social enterprise uk blog
Chris who helps keep the garden beautiful at TLS’s Safe Space in Stanford. 

Tell us a bit about some of the people who’s lives have been enhanced through TLS and how the social enterprise has empowered them to be active members of their communities

Kevins Story

Kevin was someone who was referred to us as he had been stuck at home for a long time and was seriously depressed due to a late diagnosis of Aspergers. He eventually gained a job in care as a Personal Assistant … In his words:

“I went to what was meant to be a mainstream school but there were bad pupils there and I became scared to go to school as I was an easy target and this made me very anxious, which was compounded by food allergies and related sickness.

In my mid-twenties I was tucked away at home. However TLS visited me and arranged for me to attend one of their localities.

Members of TLS staff stuck with me when I didn’t have faith in myself. They were friendly, made jokes and took time to get to know me and make me feel comfortable, whereas they could have left me quietly sat in the corner. They encouraged me to keep attending.I shadowed staff and started assisting other people. Staff treated me as a volunteer and increasingly as a member of the staff team. They trusted me and had faith in my skills. I did more and more to help, which along with training ensured I built up my confidence and could be better prepared to apply for a job. This included going to the House of Lords for a Books without Words launch and we have since set up and run such book clubs locally.

They also kicked me up the a*** to get my provisional licence so I can learn to drive.

I speak up for myself now whereas I never used to. I am now a mouthy little sod!

My job? It feels brilliant. Still enjoying every minute. Not easy. But I’m doing what everyone else is doing so I’m just like everyone else. I’m a fully-fledged member of staff and I earned it by working my way up and really impressing the interview panel, as I went through the full selection process. I see myself doing this for life, or possibly going on to be a manager and then Neil’s (CEO of TLS) job!

My life now? I have friendships with staff and socialising with them has given me self-esteem and a feeling of worth. I’m a bundle of energy. I now have a girlfriend.”

Case Study – BB

This young woman had been in the care system for a long time and sadly as well as having a learning disability, had been through traumatic sexual abuse and violence. She was renowned as being ‘difficult’, a self-harmer and regularly disappeared away into London where she took risky behaviour.

An assessment was completed and her allocated social worker agreed funding for 24 hour support for a period while she lived in one of our ‘move on’ houses.​ BB historically finds it difficult to settle and struggles to follow specific guidelines so the risk highlighted was that she would not be able to manage keeping herself and others safe. ​

BB has gone from strength to strength and engaged in 24-hour live-in support for 8 weeks​

BB has worked towards specific goals as we understand that everyone needs PEOPLE and PURPOSE in their life.:

  • To maintain a tidy and clean home, actively taking the lead in reorganising my home and staying on top of the cleaning and ensuring all areas are kept to a good standard. ​
  • To have three balanced meals a day, playing a part in cooking with basic ingredients and developing my cookery skills ​
  • To manage my personal care and hygiene​
  • To manage my Mental Health​
  • To spend time on my own​
  • To learn something new​

BB has shown great maturity throughout the lockdown period, she has connected with good people in her community, even walking dogs for them, improved her attention span and ability to self-reflect and move herself on from poor choices. Her journey is not over but our community connections, clear supported goal setting, consistent ‘professional love’ has enabled her to set a different course in life.

How did you adapt to COVID-19?

In early March we were looking at the science of COVID-19 (NOT the politics) and by the 11th had decided we needed to go into lockdown. Our staff were amazing and agreed, for the properties where we supported, to move in and treat them like a diving bell. So they would stay for 7 days .. come out and swap with someone while they then stayed safe keeping isolated in their own home for seven days . The below short film shows how this all worked. We are proud to say that no-one got sick in any of our homes.

To us COVID-19 lockdown has felt like exactly what we are designed for innovation, nimbleness and doing the right thing outside of the normal controls. Thus we rapidly moved over to an even greater model of what we call ‘Hyper Local’ individualised support and collaboration. Within three days we had helped establish a foodbank for the local homeless, were providing a shopping and prescription service to 55 local families who were needing to shield, were making over 60 welfare phone calls per day, had provided 4 highly trained staff to work with COVID-19 recovering people in the community,  and had completely transferred over to a new IT system of communicating totally online (TEAMS). Phew .. we also helped our Big Local organisation establish ‘Super Zoomers’ in the heart of a local community. These are a network of citizens who give out free tablets and trained people using Zoom to communicate with families and friends. Our oldest user is in their late 80’s and the team have racked up a massive 75,000 hours of meetings during the Lockdown – including our Nepalese community to their families far away!!

There are too many good stories to tell about the virus phase .. but one final one is the fact that during the height of Lockdown we were really worried about peoples mental health deteriorating .. so we collaborated with a local young musician to make a simple ‘gamification’ style song to teach people the 5 Steps to Wellbeing … we all recorded local people taking part in their isolation on our phones and the result was phenomenal (it cost £0 to make) watch it below. 40,000 people have watched it all the way through …. Amazing!

The 5 Steps to Wellbeing

What are some of the main challenges faced by social enterprises providing social care as we look to the future?

There’s a reality that the old dangers of ‘command and control’ and an unhealthy Commissioner Provider split are proven to be bust but are easier models to simply go back to.

Like most councils, Thurrock struggled to get going as the virus hit – but it soon gained momentum whereby the ‘Stronger Together’ philosophy allowed people to act quickly and do the right thing as opposed to doing things right. Its ‘Asset Based Community Development’ philosophy came to the fore.  So I think the main challenges are:

  • The NHS are almost untouchable now – but social care still feels like the poor relative who is actually doing a lot of the work.
  • Local government budgets are still extremely tight – but we can offer the right value and still the right social values.
  • People have started to understand that the values of society are not driven by merely gaining wealth – we need to build on the understanding of a social purpose and capitalise on that message .. People need a purpose in life. The purpose is not profit.
  • Social Care commissioners want to do the right thing – they need to continue with their brave decisions .. why not fix the price and weigh procurement points to be all about the social value and quality? Procurement is too often the tail that wags the dog.
  • The virus was just a rehearsal for a potential massive economic downturn – this is the real threat .. start collaborating NOW, invest, diversify and grow while you can… build a dam.
  • Listen to all the positive business re-design that came out of the crisis and build on them.
  • Remember it’s like a tsunami has been forecast .. the tide went out and some traditional providers were shown to not be wearing any pants! The SE world has great pants .. wear them on the outside with pride and start climbing away from the ensuing water but launch as many life vests as you can!! (but designed by the citizens themselves)
  • Finally, like any business you have to be paid the correct amount to make a reasonable profit .. why not have a proper ‘open book accounting system’ where we agree to fix a price that merely covers the cost in adult social care and the books are independently scrutinised to agree that spend was correct. Then you can be paid 3% for your profit. All transparent use of public money. Just remember – the average cost of Homecare for a Local Authority is £25 per hour. Some of our services are charged at a mere £15 per hour … just saying!