Visit to Heart of England Mencap shows independent lives being lived in a well-designed setting – but would it be registered today?

Clive Parry, ARC England Director

Last week, I spent an amazing morning with supported people and the staff who work in one of the services run by ARC England member Heart of England Mencap.

I was welcomes on arrival by Simon, one of the managers, whose infectious enthusiasm was present throughout my visit. Simon and CEO Helena Wallis told me a little of the history of the service, including the time before the current home was built and how the organisation had approached its design and layout.

As we moved inside and began to meet the people living and being supported in the home, I noticed immediately how well the rooms have been laid out; this is not a large service by any means, which makes the thoughtful design I saw even more important.

I was introduced to each resident and they showed me around the rooms and communal areas on the ground floor. It was immediately clear just how happy and well-supported the residents are.

Two residents then proudly showed me their apartments and, whilst these had much in common, they reflected the very different interests of the two men. In one apartment, all the resident’s belongings were carefully put away and the apartment was tidy. In the other, the things that matter most to the resident, including pictures and posters, were everywhere, creating a much busier feel to his home and placing his strongly held faith front and centre.

In each case, the presentation of the apartments reflected not the way the staff think the rooms should look but the different personalities of the residents. Helen, Simon and the staff explained that the interests, beliefs, values and preferences of each of the people being supported are known, valued and talked about regularly so that each person’s individuality is given the time and space needed for them to flourish in the ways that matter to them.

Each apartment includes a large living area where people can socialise and a separate cooking area and shower room so that people are able to live as independently as they wish and are able to.

The property nestles amongst residential homes that border the sides and rear boundaries. As can often be the case with services like this, the garden is surprisingly large – another design feature that was clearly very well thought through because it allows room for the barbeques, parties and other events that several residents told me they enjoyed.

Inside on the ground floor there are areas where people can relax, either alone or with others. The importance of being able to choose how much to socialise and how much time to spend doing things separately from the people you live with has been hard-wired into the design of this service. It is also an ever-present principle that underpins the approach the staff and managers take.

The service is located within a short walk from the town centre so people are able to connect with and to play an active part in the community in which they live every day. Every supported person I spoke with told me how much they loved their home, their fellow residents, the staff who support them and how much they enjoyed the lives they lead.

People talked enthusiastically about their interests and how they are supported to pursue them. The atmosphere I felt throughout my visit was that this is a homely, caring and fun place for people to live and an environment within which the rights of supported people to make individual choices and to express individual preferences are upheld at all times.

Of course, managers did share with me some of the challenges they face every day, such as attracting and retaining staff, which is a concern affecting so many learning disability providers at present, but my time spent in the services was overwhelmingly positive and upbeat. As has happened before on a member visit, I left feeling uplifted by a stronger connection with supported people and with a provider that is working tirelessly to ensure they have the very best life possible.

I’ve talked quite a bit about the design of the property but one detail I have not yet mentioned is that this is an eleven-bed service and therefore would be unlikely to be commissioned if the registration application were being considered by CQC today.

Whilst ARC England fully supports the intentions and objectives of the Right Support, Right Care, Right Culture guidance, we do also think that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is possible to support people living in what are described as congregate settings (or even intentional communities) to lead lives over which they have as much choice, control and independence as they want to have.

My thanks to Helena, Simon and the residents and staff team at Heart of England Mencap for such a warm welcome.