A last-minute u-turn means two young disabled men will not have to find a new place to live - after they were previously told that they would have to leave their shared accommodation in less than a week.
Stuart Richardson and Matthew Ball have been living in a house in Chorley for the past nine years, with round-the-clock care provided by staff from the charity United Response.
The company supports 59 people living in shared accommodation schemes across Lancashire, but families were advised in March that it would be withdrawing from its contract with Lancashire County Council within three to six months.
However, that timetable was suddenly accelerated at Stuart and Matthew’s property, where the two residents - who have lived there for nine years - were told on Monday afternoon that they would have to vacate the property by Friday lunchtime.
United Response blamed difficulty finding staff and increasing costs for speeding up the withdrawal of its service to the two men.
But after the Lancashire Post got in touch with United Response and Lancashire County Council to highlight the distress caused by the sudden change, they announced that they would work together to maintain the current contract until 8th May. After that date, a new provider will be put in place - and existing staff could be transferred to the incoming company.
United Response says the rethink was the result of a pre-planned weekly meeting with social care bosses at County Hall to discuss their gradual withdrawal from providing support services in Lancashire.
Speaking before the u-turn, Stuart’s mother, Eileen Thompson, says her 27-year-old son struggles to cope with change – especially at such short notice. He learned of the need to leave by Friday while he was on holiday with his sister.
“He doesn’t understand, he thinks he has done something wrong and is very upset by it all. He just keeps saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’.
“Stuart doesn’t transition well. He likes to know people and routine is very important to him. He has a whiteboard with all his weekly activities on and if you go off script, you’ll get a reaction.
“He communicates best with pictures – so while he was away, his sister had to show him a house with a picture of him and Matthew standing outside and a cross through it. Then she showed him an image of two separate houses – with Stuart at the front door of one and Matthew outside the other.”
The family first learned of United Response’s plans to stop providing services sometime over the summer when Stuart himself received a letter last month – even though he has Down’s Syndrome and is unable to read.
His father, Keith Richardson, says Stuart has been treated worse than anybody in the mainstream rented sector.
“If he were an ordinary tenant like anybody else, he would have more rights than he does as the vulnerable person that he is,” Keith reflects.
The family had already been planning to find alternative accommodation for Stuart, because they were growing increasingly dissatisfied with the care he was being given. But they did not want to have to carry out that search against the clock.
“The problem with United Response has been that the staff don’t seem able to manage Stuart. He can be challenging, but if you are firm with him and take practical steps, you can take him out without too much trouble.”
But because Stuart was deemed a flight risk, his family says he has been increasingly kept indoors – meaning that he has been missing out on recent matches at his beloved Bolton Wanderers. And his Mum has worried that his personal care needs have also gone unmet.
“They don’t support him with his showering and shaving, they just send him into the bathroom, he pours shampoo on his head and sticks it under the shower for a few seconds. Then he comes out and says, ‘I’m done’ and they just accept that – so he ended up with psoriasis on his scalp,” Eileen says.
Stuart’s family are now going to use a personal budget for his care to source accommodation and carers directly. They have found a suitable house, but it won’t be ready until next month – and the last-minute change of plan by United Response means the family now has more time to prepare.
After the extension was revealed, Eileen said: “I’m pleased that they’re saying they will now arrange something to keep the service going for longer. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that once the press got involved they started making decisions which were not on the cards just days ago.
“But we will press on with our plan to start arranging Stuart’s care ourselves – and we’ll do a much better job of it.”
Keith also gave a cautious welcome to the change.
"It does show the power of the press when it comes to putting pressure on organisations to do things which they should be doing anyway."
“I’m just worried that if United Response were struggling to find staff, will Lancashire County Council be able to?
Stuart’s family has been told by social care workers this morning that staff will be available from when the contract was originally due to end at midday on Friday.
Meanwhile, Stuart’s housemate of nearly a decade, 29-year-old Matthew Ball, initially faced similar uncertainty.
Matthew has the rare Angelman Syndrome, which has left him non-verbal and with severe learning difficulties. Like Stuart, he finds change unsettling.
“He remembers everyone and everywhere – and he has lived in that house for so long. So we had to tell him he was going on a little holiday, “ Glenda says.
Speaking after the change of plan, Glenda said she was “hugely relieved” by the decision - and that Matthew would be staying put.
“Matthew is happy there - and it’s great that those good staff working there at the moment will be able to continue caring for him.
“We will also be hand-picking any agency staff to ensure they are equally suitable.”
What Lancashire County Council says:
Ian Crabtree, Lancashire County Council’s director of adult services, said:
“United Response have taken the decision to cease operating their supported living services in Lancashire for adults with a learning disability.
“Ensuring everyone has safe and effective support and accommodation is our absolute priority.
“We’re working closely with NHS organisations to help everyone find suitable accommodation and holding weekly meetings to manage the transfer arrangements to new providers.
“Everyone affected has been allocated a social worker or health worker and we aim to keep individuals affected, their families and advocates fully informed and involved throughout the process.”
What care provider United Response says:
Julia Casserly, North Divisional Director for United Response, said:
“We are committed to providing bespoke care to people with learning disabilities and autism right across England and Wales.
“It was therefore a very sad and difficult decision in early February for the charity to give notice on a number of support services in Lancashire and to withdraw from delivering care in this area.
“We have agreed with Lancashire Council that we would do this gradually over the six months from early February.
“Our decision was based on a number of factors including difficulties in recruiting staff and concerns that the funding for these services was no longer sufficient.
“Once we had notified the council we wrote separately to people we support and their families and also updated staff working at the services.
“From the outset we stressed to the council that we considered Lakeland Gardens in Chorley to be the highest priority for a new care provider.
“This was because of staffing issues there and our subsequent concerns of not being able to provide safe levels of shift cover during our notice period.
“We continued to keep them aware of concerns during the weeks that followed and on April 5 told them we would be unable to fully staff the service and guarantee safe support for the full notice period.
“We are absolutely committed to ensuring that a safe service is available for the two gentlemen and therefore jointly agreed with the council on April 10 to retain three existing members of staff at Lakeland Gardens until May.
“We await news from the council on details of a new care provider beyond May for both gentlemen and will continue to support a smooth transition for the people supported and their families.
“Meanwhile, we are investigating as a matter of urgency the concerns about quality of support that have been raised and will share our findings with the families and the council.”