On 1 February, 47 employees left Thurrock Council en masse. In a planned move, they transferred to a company called Thurrock Lifestyle Solutions (TLS).
TLS provides, what used to be called day opportunities, to people with disabilities, primarily learning disabilities, in the Essex Thames-side borough. Though operating through an initial £1.5m services agreement from Thurrock Council, TLS is completely independent.
The culmination of nearly a six year process. TLS was created in 2007 with the objective of eventually taking on Thurrock Council’s Day Opportunities Programme. It has since been run as a business and, before the staff transfer, had revenue of £300,000.
The Thurrock transferees, “Lifestyle Facilitators” and “Lifestyle Enablers” provide services to people with disabilities in day-care. They have joined the 23 staff of TLS, the personal assistants and project managers who support people to gain employment and leave their parents’ home and live independently.
Spin-offs and staff transfers from local authorities are hardly unique. But what makes TLS different is its internal organisation. Registered as a Community Interest Company, it is run democratically. The nine people on its board, who all have disabilities or receive social care services, are all elected for two year terms by TLS’s service users.
“When people say, the people on your board with learning disabilities, they’ll go off track and they can’t make decisions, I say go and sit in the public gallery of any local government full council,” says Neil Woodbridge, TLS chief executive and the former service manager for provider services at Thurrock Council. “Most of the time they know what’s happening. But, like any group of people, they can be dysfunctional at times.”
The TLS approach is rooted in new community-based models of care that reject the notion that residential care for people with learning disabilities is inevitable. TLS owns a transition house, designed by the directors, where people looking to live independently can stay for six months. It runs employment training courses and offers work experience. Woodbridge says TLS unashamedly follows a customer focussed philosophy. “We operate a bit like a Pizza Hut,” he says. “If you come to us and we’re not providing you with the right service, you won’t pay us any money.”
He says that, despite the presence of “enlightened commissioners” on the local government side and the political backing of council members, the process of separation from Thurrock Council has been difficult and time-consuming. TLS went through a single tender process following public procurement rules and had to complete a pre-qualifying questionnaire to show it was financially viable. Thurrock Council has agreed to meet the liabilities of the 47 transferees should TLS fail and be forced to make redundancies.
Abbie Rumbold, a partner with law firm Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, who has advised TLS since its inception, says TLS worked with Thurrock Council to ensure there was a joint understanding of the need to make sure the company is commercially viable. “There is a temptation to think, as with some Academy conversions ‘you want to spin-off, it’s your responsibility’”, she says. “But for senior council officers, it’s important to have an idea of where the end-game is, in terms of a successful social enterprise delivering great services in the community with all the knock on benefits to the Council that brings, as opposed to having an exclusive focus on what the Council balance sheet is going to look like at the end of the year.”
But TLS does mean growing savings for Thurrock Council. The day opportunities programme currently costs the council £1.8m a year. TLS is getting an initial £1.5m grant from the council, but that will reduce by 2.5% a year. TLS hopes to receive a growing share of the direct payments of people with disabilities because they choose its services.
Rumbold says the procurement method taken by TLS, though it has ultimately been successful, is not the only answer. Councils can also take equity stakes, in services that spin-off, becoming investors with a financial interest in their success. “I think, in lots of ways Thurrock Council do see TLS as an investment, but a procurement route, is always seen as the obvious less risky option” she says. “But, to become an actual investor, that’s almost the last bit in the puzzle which would then be a game-changer.”
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