Acres of support

In a part of the country with a high concentration of older people, where unemployment runs at twice the national average and there are the added difficulties of providing a service in a rural area, Suffolk Action with Communities in Rural England (Suffolk Acre) decided there was a need for changes to community support.

The result is Helping Hands, which is being piloted in the Waveney area of Suffolk. The scheme provides community services which enable older people to live independently at home. It also generates employment locally. People are trained and employed part time to fit in with the needs of the service users (or “customers” as they prefer to be called).

“The key is in the flexibility,” explains Karen Lawson, Helping Hands project manager. “The council found it expensive to provide the required services and difficult to recruit staff. We decided we needed to find an alternative way of meeting local needs.”

Eventually, Helping Hands will provide personal care services but first it will have to register with the Commission for Social Care Inspection. And to do that, not only do the policies and procedures have to be in place, but Helping Hands also has to have a demonstrable track record – and it can’t get that track record until it can start work.

So Helping Hands began by putting in place other services. Carers are employed by the hour for help with tasks such as cleaning, laundry, and prescription and pension collection. All the work is geared towards independence, so staff will, for example, take people to do their own shopping rather than do it for them.

Helping Hands now has a contract with the council to provide 120 hours of personal care a week to 50 customers. Supporting People is funding 16 further customers and some individuals are paying for the service privately.

Registration is not required for these services, but the work will get Helping Hands to the point where it can apply for registration.

Helping Hands is able to provide a very flexible service, recruiting people to do whatever might be required by its customers. “We are pleased to have men and women of diverse ages and backgrounds working for us,” says Lawson. For example, there was a problem with accessing customers’ homes securely, so Helping Hands took on five people with practical skills to work part time to fit “key safes” with number pad entry systems so staff can get into customers’ homes.

The scheme’s success lies in its scope for meeting “small” needs using people who want to work just a few hours in the locality. “We all work the hours to suit our lifestyles and do whatever the customer wants, no matter how small. For some it’s just a check and a chat,” says Margaret White, one of the community support workers. “We all have a say, workers and customers alike, so the service is geared to all our needs.”

Now it is running successfully, the plan is to turn Helping Hands into a fully co-operative, democratic, non-profit enterprise to benefit the local community. Any profits will be redistributed and circulated within the local economy and everyone involved will have a say in how the service is provided. There will be a board overseeing the project, to which the staff will be accountable but which will include representatives of clients and workers.

Sarah Lees is the strategy manager of Co-operative Action, which recently gave Helping Hands a grant of £11,115 to help achieve this status. “Suffolk Acre provides an ideal opportunity for service users and providers to work together to support elderly people but also to improve opportunities in rural areas,” she explains. “This is a good example of how co-operative solutions can provide independent choice and tackle social exclusion.”

“We hope to be running co-operatively by this time next year, in readiness for when the funding runs out in November 2005,” adds Lawson. “So far we seem to be on target.”


Scheme: Helping Hands, supported by Suffolk Acre, providing flexible care to support older people in the community.

Location: Waveney in north Suffolk.

Staffing: One full-time project manager, two job-share team leaders, 15 part-time staff.

Inspiration: The need for efficient services in rural areas taking a new and different approach.

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