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Humble Beginnings

Published 4th November 2020, in Blog
Last year our Chair of Trustees Andrew Barge sat down with our founder Peter Swain OBE and asked him a few questions about Living Options Devon, why the charity was started, the initial focus of the charity and whether it has surpassed his expectations.

The interview can be heard in full by listening back to the Accessibility Matters show on Phonic FM

Andrew: Good afternoon, I’m joined by Peter Swain who is the founder of Living Options Devon. Peter, I thought I’d start by asking you just a little bit about the history of Living Options Devon and how it came about.

Peter: Living Options came about through a conspiracy of circumstances back in the 1980s which was a very fertile time in the disability world. 1981 had seen the international year of disabled people and from that came a national initiative centred in London and begun by the Prince of Wales. And he established an advisory group on disability, part of which was something called the Living Options Working Party, which involved all the leading lights from the major charities involved with disability coming together every quarter. And I was invited to one of its meetings in London as a participant, I became a regular member of the working party from 1984 onwards and it did such good work. It had representatives from all the big charities working in the field of disability and sensory loss; representatives from the department of health and the SSI and other interested parties. And I found it was a very interesting forum in which a lot of good work was done and the idea began to germinate then. And that was the very early beginnings.

Andrew: And obviously you didn’t do it all by yourself you must have had lots of people helping you.

Peter: A fund of money became available to Exeter Health Authority to work with people with disabilities and the project we put together, and three of us worked on it somebody from Plymouth, someone from Torbay and myself; we worked over eighteen months formulating a project to present to the Health Authority for funding, and of the one hundred thousand pound fund that the Health Authority received from the Nuffield Prudential Hospital Trust, Living Options received Sixteen Thousand a year for two years and that started the organisation going but in a very small way. We had one member of staff, myself as a volunteer and that was it to begin with and our first meeting was held in St James School in January of 1990.

  • Andrew: And what were your original hopes for the organisation, what did you want to achieve?

Peter: It was a time of considerable change, community care was on the horizon; the notion of community care being much more formulated and governed by legislation which came about in 1993, and the idea originally that we should do some research work determined the base layer for the service provision around the extra area of what was available and what was being done for disabled people at that time by the statutory and voluntary sectors.  We presented our findings to the authorities so that they knew how to put together their community care plans with specific reference to people with disabilities. And it’s gratifying to note that an awful lot of the work we did in that short period of time was incorporated into and addressed by the first community care plan in 1993.

We’ve seen it change fundamentally from being one person and a volunteer to having over thirty members of full time staff or full time equivalents; From receiving a grant of sixteen thousand a year to turning close on one and three quarter million pounds. So the change has been huge in a relative short period of time.

Peter Swain OBE
  • Andrew: And what do you think are the main achievements? Obviously there have been many but anything that’s given you particular sort of pride in the organisation or is it just the fact that it’s still hear as an organisation and still doing good work?

Peter: Well I think some of the early achievements would be establishing a credibility very quickly with the main statutory agencies, with Health, Social Services and local authorities. People were keen to talk to us, they were keen to come and engage us in discussion before they did anything, and from that point of view it was a very useful time to have a working party locally that mirrored that which was taking place in London at the same time.

We would have quarterly meetings in and around Exeter where all the local leaders of the charities that worked with disabled and sensory impaired people came together to discuss matters of particular interest. We might be looking at the community care plan for next year and what it might contain and what progress had been made with the current plan. And I think it was having an effective developing a relationship with the community as a whole and the disabled community in particular, and that gave us a high degree of credibility with the statutory agencies and the community that we had particular interest in.

So I think it was that level of achievement in a very short period of time. Interestingly we were independently reviewed by the Nuffield Trust who funded us and for the smallest grant they’d made available to any organisation, we had the most profound impact of all the projects that they’d funded in that particular programme. So from that point of view it was very gratifying and I think we set a standard of employee, a standard of work, of high quality work at a relatively low cost. And I think we’ve maintained that over thirty years and I think that’s quite an achievement.

I rather hoped that we might one day a direct provider of service which we most certainly are now we’re a major provider of services. So that was an on the horizon hope and I certainly had no concept of quite how large the organisation would become and in what areas we’d be effective and that we would go in to sensory and services for the profoundly Deaf and people who use British Sign Language. Clearly at the beginning I had no idea that that’s where we would go. But you always have hopes.

Peter Swain OBE
  • Andrew: Absolutely and without wanting to embarrass you of course you were a proud recipient of an MBE a few years ago which I guess is a reflection on yourself but also a reflection on the organisation as well.

Peter: Well it wasn’t an MBE it was an OBE.

  • Andrew: Oh sorry I do apologise you’ve upgraded yourself.

Peter: Well I wouldn’t presume to upgrade. But yes it was a big day when I received the notification. That was in 1996 so it reflected very well on the people I worked with and again it was about being in the right place at the right time. I’d been chair of the National User and Carer Group set up by the Department of Health in 1993, was eventually disbanded by the new administration in 1997 and it had done a lot of good work on monitoring the implementation of the Community Care Act, and I think we did some good work allied to what we were doing locally, and I think the citation was for work done in the statutory and voluntary sectors and contribution to good practice. And again that reflects on the people I worked with and the organisations I worked closely with and within. So I don’t regard it as a personal award, it’s very much for those I worked alongside and I’ve been very fortunate in that respect.

  • Andrew: well if that was 1996 that was twenty five years ago and you’re still doing a fantastic job so thank you very much for everything you do for Living options still very heavily involved in the organisation and taking it forward to even better and bigger things.
  • Peter: Well I’m sure the organisation is more than capable of going on to bigger and better things. We’ve got a lot of good staff, a high quality team and I’m sure they will take it to another level. I’m only pleased that I’ve been able to play a small part in that.

Andrew: Brilliant, well thank you very much for joining us this afternoon, thank you Peter.

Peter: It’s been my pleasure.