This is the story of your organisation. I wanted to write it so that all of you know where our origins came from, when and why we set we set it up and the rich history that has SHCA embedded in its roots.
It goes right back to the 1970’s. My husband, a bricklayer, got a job in a building co-operative, Sunderlandia. He brought home the Memorandom and Articles of Association of the company (rules to you and me!). As I leafed through them I read that each person had a vote, they had one share each in the company and they could use their vote at meetings to make decisions. It just felt instinctively right to me that every worker had a say in the running of the company – they were part of the decision making process. Sunderlandia also had female apprentices, bricklayers and joiners – in 1973! I met the founder members of the Co-op. One in particular, Robert Oakeshott, was a very interesting chap. He had worked on the Financial Times and spent many years in Africa building and running a school. He asked if I was interested in starting a workers co-op. Well, with two small bairns – one and four years old – no qualifications and no money, it didn’t seem likely, did it? I knew though that being a housewife and mother, although laudable, was not going to be enough for me. So I started thinking about it. I got a group of 7 women together with roughly the same circumstances as myself. We started meeting every fortnight and our ideas flowed. We would open a food shop – everybody had to eat! We started to go to the banks for a loan. With the help of Robert Oakeshott we did a business plan. We would need £8,500 to get our shop opened.
Robert Oakeshott had contacts and he managed to get us a loan from the Wates foundation. The Wates came to see us and must have liked what they saw. Eventually, the NatWest Bank gave us a loan. We had to get our husbands to sign as guarantors! It took two years of slog to get the funding – no grants in those days. At our fortnightly meetings, the ideas continued to grow. We would have a nursery upstairs for our bairns, a seat in the shop for women with bairns and for pensioners. We would sell small portions to older people, which they greatly appreciated. We had located an empty butchers shop in Hylton Road with a 3 bed roomed flat upstairs – great for a nursery. We bought the shop and our husbands, friends and relatives helped us to fit it out. We made friends with the local cash & carry manager – he came to our meetings to help us plan what stock we should carry.
It was about 11.30pm on December 5th 1976 that a very tired and uneasy group of people left 11, Hylton Road. We were opening at 9am on the next day. And so Little Women Ltd started to trade. We had our nursery upstairs and our seats for young mams. We did sell small portions – one egg, one rasher of bacon etc. We sold a lot of whole foods and herbs too. My group of lasses started to learn the business of running a business. We rotated every job, from washing the floor to doing the books and ordering stock. It was hard work but a very happy time. I noticed that the women had changed. They seemed more self-assured and confident. We attracted a lot of publicity – TV, radio and the papers. We all took it in our stride and I saw those women blossom – me too. We were earning (very little) and learning tons of new skills. Our AGM was a grand affair. We would hire a local pub – usually the Mountain Daisy and we’d invite all of our customers for a knees up. At Christmas, we’d have home made pease pud and sherry for them. It was very much a community shop with a nice atmosphere – no sweets at the till to tempt the bairns for us. In 1980, we made the painful, difficult decision to sell the shop. Inflation was going crazy and our takings were stagnant. We worried that we might not be able to pay back the loans – also, all the bairns were now at school so the nursery was only used at holiday times and Saturdays. We went ahead and sold it – we vetted the buyers. We wanted to try and keep as friendly and helpful a place as possible. The woman who brought it was really nice and she kept our ways.
In 1980, I decided it was time I got some higher education and enrolled at Sunderland Polytechnic to do a Community and Youth Work Diploma. We – the Little Women – kept up our fortnightly meetings – they had been hard won by! I noticed that the other jobs they were working at were not as fulfilling as Little Women. They now felt they had bosses looking over their shoulders, whereas in Little Women they could use their initiative to get on and to do things. I finished my course in 1982. I was asked by a co-op friend, Peter Smith, if I was interested in starting a home care co-op. I sure was! My daughter says that I have a bug and she’s right, the co-op bug. I know how this way of working can change people and make them feel better about themselves, I had lived it myself.
Little Women Household Services LTD began providing a service in 1983. We involved the Social Services and the Trade Unions. We all joined NUPE. We used Social Security payments to cover the cost of the help. Basically it worked like this. We would find people who could not get a Local Authority home help. I would visit them to assess what they would need – usually one hour shopping, housework and laundry. I would apply on their behalf to the DHSS (as it was then) for a grant to cover the cost of their help. The grant would be put on the person’s pension as an Additional Requirements benefit– we would do the work and I would go out each week and they would pay us the cash. It worked very well and by 1985, we had 18 women working.
I was offered an exciting post at The Princes Trust Community Venture, which was a challenge and it paid! At the same time, the Thatcher Government withdrew the additional requirements payments. So Little Women Household Services Ltd - without someone to look for other markets to try and save it – sort of petered out. It did not go bust, just slowly ceased to exist.
In 1989, the Griffiths Report on Care in the Community came out. It was a wake up call for me. The Government were going to force local councils to outsource some of their services. What better way of delivering services than a workers co-op. I contacted Robert Oakeshott, who by this time was running an organisation in London, Job Ownership Ltd (JOL). I told him of my ideas and he suggested that JOL pay for me to look at the American care co-ops – as they had been operating for a number of years. How wow was that. I went with Robert’s assistant, Rachel, to New York. We spent three days in the Bronx and then went to Philadelphia. I came back inspired and with some help from JOL, put the Sunderland Home Care Associates business plan together. We were asking Social Services for 450 hours a week at £6 per hour. We would need about 20 care workers to carry that out. In September of 1993 there was an advert in the Echo asking for ‘expressions of interest’ from organisations wanting to provide a Domiciliary Care Service to the people of Sunderland. Out of over one hundred expressions of interest only seven organisations were chosen. Because of my Little Women Household Services background we were one of them. Give Sunderland Council their due, nearly all the organisations were either charities or social enterprises like us. They also gave us £10,000 of our hourly payments up front. Add that to a grant of £11,500 I had managed to get from the Tyne and Wear Development Foundation to help with start-up costs and we were on our way. You know, SHCA has never borrowed a penny. Some would say that it was because of my tightfistedness, I prefer to think of it as prudence!
It was about this time that SHCA employed a part time Coordinator, Shaun Jackson. I knew him because he had been one of the lads on the Princes Trust Community Venture back in 1985, at the tender age of eighteen (complete with curly perm – sorry Shaun!) and was very interested in the idea of workers’ cooperatives.
We had asked a local training organisation, ETEC, if they would do our Care NVQ’s for us. They let us have some space in their Hendon offices until we got our own. At that time home support was a fairly new concept so when I looked at the NVQ’s there didn’t seem to be one that fitted home care. So, I chose two. Each poor worker had to complete two NVQ’s. Mind you, I was an NVQ assessor and can remember working until two o’clock in the morning to get everyone through.
We recruited twenty people to become Care Workers. We set up an office in Frederick Street in the Counsel for Voluntary Service building. I was asked by Social Services when we would be ready to start the service. I opened my diary and the 4th of July fell on a Monday. I thought we’d never forget that date. So, on 4th July 1994 we started providing a personal care service to the vulnerable people of Sunderland in their own homes. The service was to help people remain independent in their own homes for as long as possible. I certainly think we have achieved that.
As the years went by our Cooperative grew. The Board of Directors is elected by the members at the Annual General Meeting. As a Board we consciously decided to get big. We wanted people to take workers cooperatives seriously and being a large company would help do just that. We branched out into other areas. I struck up a relationship with the Disability Support Team at Sunderland University. We had a lot of trained workers who could help support the many disabled students that come to the university each year. Our Academic Support Workers help students with note taking, getting around campus etc. We also moved into Sunderland Colleges. Our support workers mentor students with learning disabilities.
In 2000 we decided to change our structure from a workers cooperative to an employee owned company. That meant that workers could be given shares in the company. It’s quite a complicated way of working but basically the majority of shares are held in an ‘Employee Benefit Trust’ (EBT). Some of the yearly pre-tax profit is given to another trust, a ‘Share Incentive Plan’ (SIP) who then purchases shares from the EBT. These shares are held in the SIP for a set period after which they are distributed to the workers. The current value of the shares is £9.50 each. Not bad when you make a comparison with where we started in 2000. It was £2.60 per share back then and has risen over the years since. It’s a nice way of saving but they can be sold back to the trust one day in the year. That day we hold an ‘Internal Regulated Share Market’. Shares that have matured do not attract tax or National Insurance and we don’t pay Corporation Tax on the money put into the EBT. It is a very efficient way of rewarding our workers for their commitment and loyalty.
In 2004 we set up a company, Care and Share Associates Ltd (CASA). We knew that we had developed some really good systems and work practices in SHCA. I believe that this is mainly due to the way we work. All of our people have been ‘home grown’. For the most part workers come in as home support workers and with training they move to being Supervisors and Coordinators. This makes for good ideas from the coal face. We set up CASA so that we could replicate our model in other areas. Our aim was to democratise home care services across the north! No small task.
Sunderland Home Care has continued to grow. We went into South Tyneside in 2007. South Tyneside is a branch of SHCA and is doing very well. In 2012, as part of our contract with Sunderland Council, we started working in a small extra care scheme, Albany House.
Between us we have in excess of 450 staff and provide well over 10,000 hours of support a week.
Four years ago we developed Independent Futures; this project is a partnership venture with Health and Adult Services. SHCA is supporting people with learning disabilities who have been in long stay units and assisting them to find and live in their own homes. Most of this work is highly specialised and on a 24 hour basis. We have introduced a ‘micro enterprise’ element to the lives of the people we support. This means that a number of very small enterprises have been created so that our service users lead fulfilling and enjoyable lives. So far we have 26 people living in their own homes supported by well qualified and committed staff. To date the micro enterprises set up include a ‘dry’ car wash, dog walking, crafts and an organic dog biscuit business.
We also work in partnership with the Registered Social Landlord, Gentoo, in the Cherry Tree Gardens complex, providing 24 hour care to the residents of the building. This extra care complex is a state of the art, beautiful building. The complex includes seven bungalows in which we also provide care.
We have also, in partnership with Sunderland Council, developed ‘Cafe on the Park’. This is a lovely little cafe situated in Herrington Country Park. We employ people with learning disabilities. They can only earn £20 per week or it affects their benefits. We believe that this may be the first time a person with a learning disability will have shares in their own company and that is such a fantastic development.
We are now in our twentieth year, so on July 4th 2014 we will have a really big party!
Our capacity for developing innovative projects/businesses seems to hold no bounds. Our latest venture is the ‘Flower Mill’, a delightful little garden centre near Fulwell Mill. In partnership with Sunderland Colleges we will give students with learning disabilities an opportunity to gain work experience of working in the garden centre whilst gaining qualifications in horticulture. The aim is to employ some them eventually. Some of our Independent Futures users also work in there and gain valuable work experience and new skills. We are in the process of trying to get the allotment adjacent to the centre. Our plans include a proposal for a piece of almost derelict land in Thompson Park to grow organic produce to sell and use in the cafe. A virtuous circle of growth assisted by our people with learning disabilities. Organic produce grown in the community and eaten in the community. The possibilities are endless.
We are the largest independent provider of domiciliary care services in Sunderland and I believe that we provide just about the most diverse array of services that we can. Great oaks from little acorns grow, so they say, and I think in our case that this is true. We have come a long way and I hope this story gives you some insight into where we came from and what it’s all about – I’m so proud to have had the chance to work with so many brilliant, innovative, motivated and caring people – what a pleasure to come to work when there are people of your calibre around.
One of my favourite quotes is by John Ruskin and I would like to share it with you.
‘What we think or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only thing of consequence is what we do’
Margaret Elliott OBE