Gravel Barons versus a Therapeutic Community

By John Whitwell | Published in Therapeutic Communities (1992), Vol 13 No. 2.

This paper was first presented at the XIIth Anglo-Dutch Conference on Therapeutic Communities, Windsor, September 1990.


I imagine that every therapeutic community has identified a threat to its survival in some form or other. It may be internal to the therapeutic community, e.g. being overwhelmed by the problems of the clients, a dramatic act by a client, like setting fire to the place, or a less dramatic and much longer process of drifting “off task”. The threat may be external, e.g. referrals dry up, a motorway is planned to go through your grounds, or some scandal about your therapeutic community hits the headlines. It is quite possible that all threes fears are familiar to most therapeutic communities, but one may become predominant. The Cotswold Community has had many threats to its survival over the years, some more imaginary than real, both external and internal. When the threats are more imaginary they clearly reflect the psychopathology of the organisation. However, the threats can be real and they can affect the psychodynamics of the community very profoundly.

A persistent threat to the Cotswold’s survival is gravel extraction. A large proportion of our land is gravel bearing. These gravel deposits became significant when the price of gravel increased as motorways were built. There are approximately 8 companies who, from time to time, make Wiltshire County Council (our proprietors), offers they cannot refuse. They have been cast in the role of “gravel barons” like the robber barons, the men with the black hats, the enemy, the vultures, the predators. We, the therapeutic community, are the good guys, the men with the white hats, with right on our side.

This is not entirely fantasy. The following extract is about one of the 8 barons. It is from the Independent on Saturday 8 September ’90 entitled “Last Campaign in the Feud of Ferris Court”.

Roger Cullimore, gravel digger, haulage contractor and farmer in his native Gloucestershire, has strong views about the way his kind of England has gone:

“They’ve got a bureaucratic system here that stops anyone that’s got energy and go – the thing is to kick them in the private parts and knock them down. Now they’re threatening me with a compulsive purchase order. Russia’s throwing out communism. This country seems it wants to go down that road.”

What particularly interests me, as much as a solution to the problem is the long-term effect of the gravel issue on this community. How would Cotswold have developed without this particular threat? How would all the energy, that has been expended fighting off this threat, have been used? Have we needed an external threat? Has it served a useful purpose? What has been the impact on the work with the children?

Background Information

How did we get into this mess in the first place? There has been a substantial increase in the value of gravel during recent years. Whoever owns the site could be tempted to realise this asset. How did the Cotswold Community come to be on land owned by a local authority? The following edited account was written by Geoffrey Banner, former director of Wiltshire Social Services, in a paper to the Managing Body in 1981.

The estate of the Cotswold Community, extending to some 350 acres, is based on Ashton Farm, whose history extends over several hundred years. In the 1930’s it was acquired by the Bruderhof, a community pursuing a life of relative self-sufficiency, cultivating the farm and developing a number of productive crafts.

In the 1940’s the buildings and estate were taken over to establish an Approved School for adolescent boys under the title “The Cotswold School”. It had a bias towards agriculture but also provided the traditional trade training in building, carpentry, decorating etc., which was intended to equip boys with employment potential on leaving school.

In the 1960’s senior civil servants at the Home Office (the Government department responsible at the time) had become concerned at the poor success rates of Approved Schools. They sought an opportunity to develop somewhere, an establishment with the primary aim of treating disturbed children, and invited the Rainer Foundation which owned the Cotswold School to participate in this development. Richard Balbernie, the first Principal of the Cotswold Community, was appointed in 1967 with this commission in mind.

In 1968 the Rainer Foundation entered into an agreement with Wilshire County Council to exercise a watching brief at the renamed Cotswold Community and to make available advisory services as appropriate. Management responsibility continued to be vested in the Rainer Foundation; advice on management was available from the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and other professional advisory staff were recruited.

The result of this action was to extend the brief to that of examining how far it was possible for a therapeutic community to operate within the local authority system. It would be misleading to regard this as an experiment which in the normal course of events, would be evaluated and either extended or terminated according to the results. Nevertheless there was an experimental nature to the enterprise, of which the Principal and his staff were well aware and which provided an important focus for the relevant staff from the local authority.

This arrangement continued until 1972 when the Rainer Foundation indicated its desire to withdraw and devote its resources to other forms of assistance to children in trouble – “intermediate treatment”. As a result the County Council was invited to acquire the premises, which it did for the sum of £400,000 on January 1, 1973.

Throughout the Cotswold Community has provided a service for authorities outside Wiltshire and the proportion of Wiltshire children in residence has generally been no more than five per cent of the total. All costs, including administration and debt charges, are included in the fee to user authorities. There is thus no cost to the County Council beyond the cost of any Wiltshire children who are placed there.

A picture of perfect harmony! David Wills in his book “Spare the Child” had a very clear understanding of the problems for Cotswold following a transfer to the County Council.

“…… the children’s committee (the forerunner of the Social Services Committee) is not an autonomous body. It is simply a committee of the County Council to which it is answerable and to which it reports – a body where many large issues are discussed and decided and to whom such a thing as the Cotswold Community is merely a minor concern of one of its committees …. Among all this important and far-reaching business with its relentless competition for funds, the Community itself merely an adopted child of one of its committees – is bound to be very small fry indeed and if its interests should happen to clash with those of another committee or project of the Council, no very strong or authoritative voice is likely to be raised on its behalf. It will thus be seen that the ultimate control of the Community is in the power of a body with a multiplicity of interests, which is not only remote and difficult to access, but is unfamiliar with the Community’s particular problems, without specialised knowledge of what it is trying to do, only marginally interested in its work and only faintly identified with the need to make the conversion a success.” (Wills, 1971)

Ken Rice observed in 1968 in his first consultancy note: “I hope the Community can be given “special” status as an experimental unit under national rather than local control”. He added that what was needed by the parent organisation, the Rainer Foundation at that time, was to provide “a screen between the system and the Community ….” In America such a role has been “institutionalised” and I believe is known in government circles as “running interference””.

From the time that Cotswold transferred to Wiltshire County Council we have not had a parent organisation that has “run interference”. The opposite is more the case. An example of this concerns the meetings of our Managing Body which is technically a sub-committee of the Social Services Committee. It is subject to the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, therefore our meetings are open to the press and the public. Sensitive issues can be reported in the local papers without a full understanding of the complexities and the context e.g. a local newspaper headline read “Therapy Centre Under Threat”. This information in turn loops back into the Community in an unhelpful way creating considerable anxiety. The County Council can do nothing to manage this. A positive interpretation is that this is democracy at work, warts and all. A negative interpretation is that it is part of a softening up exercise, death by attrition, the institutional equivalent of constructive dismissal. How do you keep morale high in this context? I will return to this.

Another problem is that we have no separate legal identity. In theory we cannot negotiate on our own behalf. No conflict of interest is formally recognised between Cotswold and the County Council. I could be disciplined for opposing what is in the best interests of the County Council even if I was merely doing my job in trying to safeguard the future of Cotswold. It creates an atmosphere which encourages a delinquent search for autonomy, because we certainly do not sit back passively.

In the early 1980’s, it was realised that the future of the Cotswold Community under the local authority would be vulnerable. Over a four to five year period there was an attempt to transfer Cotswold back into the voluntary sector. Lengthy negotiations took place between the Peper Harow Foundation, the County Council and the Community. They eventually broke down and with hindsight a window of opportunity was lost. Soon after this Richard Balbernie retired and the focus shifted to a change of leadership – a critical time in the life of any therapeutic community.

However, the predatory instincts of the County Council were not suspended and we had to deal with an attempt to sell of most of the land. A compromise of 30 acres was reached. We were assured that this was to be our once and for all contribution to Wiltshire’s financial problems. This didn’t last long. Once again our future on this site is being reviewed by the Council, under its county-wide Property Review. This Review looks at all the land and building owned by Wiltshire, decides if any are surplus to requirements, and puts forward proposals to sell, thereby raising capital for its own spending programme. The Community is Wiltshire’s largest land holding and inevitably attention has been focussed here. The Property Services Department of Wiltshire wish to realise the gravel asset on the Community’s land. The staff of the Community think that if this happens it will disrupt our work and we are, therefore, opposed to it.

The problem is that there is always a problem. Every four or five years in the Community’s history there has been a crisis created by the Council’s wish to sell the land. A council cannot make promises which bind future councils, so every newly elected Council attempts to realise the asset. This is a fundamental problem of being owned and managed by a local authority. We have survived intact so far because we have some very good friends within the County Council who support our work and use their influence. However, a national resource, such as Cotswold, should not be managed by a local political organisation. There is nothing in it for them except maybe a bit of kudos. We will always be vulnerable within this structure and we are in the middle of trying to find a solution.

How has the Community attempted to defend itself on this issue?

One line of defence has been to attack the integrity of the bureaucracy to which it can be surprisingly sensitive. Richard Balbernie was particularly adept at this and created many enemies along the way. An example of his rhetoric appeared under the sub-heading “The Watchers On the Border” (sounds like a scene from a Tolkein epic).

“The task of external management will be to help to run interference in order to help all individuals within the enterprise increasingly to develop greater personal responsibility – but it will be subjected to administrative pressures, procedures and control systems which require statements and blueprints to be produced in order to feed systems which demand predictability, over-simplification and computer and calculator consciousness and planning. The dream of the illusory developing predictable state. The greater the degree of actual unpredictability, of that which is hidden, the greater will the anxiety be which is engendered and the greater the pressure to deny the intolerable uncertainty. All sorts of manipulative techniques are likely to be introduced to produce “processed” illusion of certainty as cover to satisfy what the current jargon is called “public accountability” and “credibility”, “cost efficiency”, “cost benefit” and so on. Large organisations must inevitably attempt to reduce the complex to calculable and “manageable simplicity.” (Balbernie, 1973)

The staff group of Cotswold have certainly experienced the Property Review as manipulative. It sets out to achieve predetermined ends, rather like the Health Service Review.

It is done in the guise of even-handedness, but it generates uncertainty by putting forward unacceptable proposals in order for them to be knocked down. But this process itself is destructive because it undermines morale. Take, for example, a Welsh village in a valley which hears rumours that the valley is to be flooded to create a reservoir. The rumours themselves will undermine village life. Some people may start to move out and the heart goes out of the village. It may be, on the contrary, that the village can successfully fight off the proposals and it can have a tremendous sense of achievement. However, rumours are more difficult to fight than firm proposals, because they are merely shadows, but often believed.

In advance of the Property Review reporting on Cotswold our Managing Body set up a Working Party to take a long hard look at our location to see whether or not it helped or hindered the performance of the primary task. It concluded that the Cotswold is on a good site, but not ideal. Our sense of ownership is high because it has seen generations of staff and children, with shared sweaty endeavour, develop the site, through self-help projects. While it is theoretically possible to start a Cotswold on another site, it could be life-threatening, certainly if it is done to us rather that it being on our initiative, something which we make happen. Once again local government is not a good context within which to consider this.

The Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities, of which we are a member consists of communities who are, apart from ourselves, in the voluntary sector, all registered charities. I am sure each of these communities have their own uncertainties to deal with, but there are certain basics they can take for granted, e.g. a parent body with a clear commitment to the “primary task”. It is a fundamental flaw for a national resource, such as Cotswold, to be managed by a local political body. In this respect I think we have more in common with the therapeutic communities in the Health Service.

We are now in a position to conclude that the second part of the experiment, to test the feasibility of running Cotswold as part of a local authority, has failed. In the main this is not because we have been “hamstrung” by a rigid bureaucracy, which was the main fear in the “70’s, it is much more to do with party politics dominating local government.

Another line of defence has been to claim the moral high ground exemplified in this personal communication by Richard Balbernie (1984).

“Throughout (the Community’s history) “gravel” has assumed special and deep importance, symbolising money. A little pot of gold. But we do not want to be “in” the money. I think this may also symbolise and represent something bigger than it’s concrete potential, something less reductionistic than the materialistic aspects of reality alone; the “Deeps” of the Cotswold Community – it’s real standing as it were. An enterprise is measured (instinctively at least) by its psychic depth and the depth of motivational involvement and the process of change and development in it’s staff, their self awareness and consciousness (so that they are not possessed by the unconscious), their discovery of what it means to be human.

We are concerned with a children’s settlement as therapist. That is the real standing and ground under its’ feet, deeper than the mineral “rights” beneath it. Its objective value lies there, in its task.

Somewhere, somehow, surely “gravel” represents to us all some deeper level tracks, not merely it’s potential as a shallow grave in being squandered to greed, short-sightedness and to the lesser gods which everywhere at present have such a grip. The spirit of all those ancient bones and lives we walk and work on here, that map, sometimes with too little awareness. Maybe therefore “gravel” represents something to do with the depth and superficiality of individual human consciousness”.

The gravel companies and to a certain extent the County Council have tried to capture the economic high ground. Our economy needs gravel as an essential raw material. Each county has to have a mineral plan which contributes to the national mineral plan organised by central government. Sir John Harvey-Jones said, during a radio programme, that there are basically three wealth creating activities:

1. To grow things; 2.To extract materials from the ground; 3.To convert these materials into something more useful and valuable – manufacturing. In that sense therapeutic communities rely on wealth-creating activities to fund their work.

I am sure therapeutic communities could put forward the counter economic argument that its activities contribute to the wealth of society by reclaiming lost lives and enabling people to make a contribution, rather than remain a drain on resources.

Other lines of defence have been to put forward in a strong case for retaining the farm, explaining its importance to the therapeutic task. There has also been considerable archaeological interest in this upper-Thames region and some interesting conflicts between archaeologists and the gravel barons. One of our fields is designated an “ancient monument” and we were rather hoping this would apply to the whole community.

The Effect on the Work of the Community

The threat of gravel extraction has had a noticeable effect on staff morale. At times it has given us a temporary boost, a false cohesion, through fighting the common enemy. At other times it has undermined our confidence about the future. We know that there is a direct link between the state of staff morale and its capacity to “contain” emotional disturbance.

“It would seem that morale has two basic ingredients – a belief in the integrity of the Community and a belief in its effectiveness.
Integrity: This means here the shared belief in the wholeness of the community ….
Effectiveness: Closely related to the question of integrity is the set of beliefs about the Community’s ability to do what it sets out to do, beliefs which are beset by strong emotional forces …
If the integrity is threatened a belief in the effectiveness of the organisation suffers.” (Hinshelwood, 1987)

The threat of losing land for gravel extraction feels like an attack on the integrity of the Community.

“As soon as bits begin to be lopped off this property to any considerable extent, the Community begins to lose its soil, to lose its identity and to die.” (Balbernie).

The Cotswold Community as a whole needs to have a sufficiently compelling vision – an activity, project, a source of shared purpose, a basic assumption – to sustain the collective dyadic relationship between staff and boys.

At the level of the institution as a whole a significant implicit vision between 1982 – 85 was a fantasy of a revitalised independent Cotswold Community within the voluntary sector. That underpinned the more daunting explicit task of providing treatment for disturbed and delinquent boys. The loss of that implicit vision when negotiations broke down, with its notion of almost magical cure, led to a period of tiredness and depression in staff. How essential is it to have an implicit vision (a sustaining myth) which is shared and understood by the Community as a whole? Does the threat of gravel extraction, in a perverse sort of way, give the Community an implicit purpose, an enemy to fight, which might be a greater source of satisfaction than the daunting primary task? The danger, however, is that of adopting a siege mentality.

My leadership has attempted to lift staff morale through better task performance as a source of satisfaction. Isobel Menzies put it very clearly when she said:

“The management of an institution requires some measure of … ruthlessness but this concern for task need not and should not necessarily be linked with lack of concern for people. In the main it is likely to prove the contrary. Much of the task orientated activity is, in fact, directly good for people. For example, striving for adaptive and mature defences rather than primitive, and counteracting the development of destructive sub-cultures, are rewarding for people.

Above all, such task-orientated activities facilitate the support given to staff through belonging to an institution that functions well and gives both the rewards for work well done and the rewarding relationships that go with them”. (Menzies, 1979).

The end of negotiations in 1985 to transfer into the voluntary sector coincided with a change of leadership and a marked drop in referrals. Morale was at an all time low. There was clear evidence that low morale affects the Community’s ability to work with and contain the most disturbed children.

We came through this period and began to believe in ourselves again. Some remarkable changes were seen to occur in children as a result of the improved quality of therapeutic child care. There began a renewed sense of direction and this has continued.

During the past three years we have experienced a marked increase in referrals and this is common to all the therapeutic communities in the Charterhouse Group. The fostering boom is over. Throughout the country it is now realised that there are some children who are too damaged and disturbed to be placed with a foster family and, more to the point, their need for treatment would not be met, for loving care and attention by itself is not enough. In this context the Cotswold Community’s 23 years experience of working with emotionally “unintegrated” (Winnicott 1965, Dockar-Drysdale 1990) children is needed now more than ever and into the foreseeable future.

In order that the Community can thrive in the future, we know that it must not continue to be vulnerable to local authority politics. We could achieve this by moving back into the voluntary sector, as a charitable trust. The value of the gravel makes it very difficult, maybe impossible, to raise sufficient capital to buy out the Community from the County Council at its market value. We would be satisfied with a long lease, because our prime objective is to achieve security of tenure.

So far morale has remained steady, mainly because we continue to effectively treat very disturbed children and because our Managing Body and the Social Services Committee are basically positive about the Community’s future.

Postscript 1

In the light of subsequent experiences this last paragraph was over-optimistic. In June 1991 the Social Services Committee passed a motion that 103 acres of our farm was “surplus to requirements” and available for gravel extraction. This is likely to be ratified, in the very near future, by the full County Council. This decision was taken, ignoring the professional advice of the Cotswold staff, their consultants and the Director of Social Services. There is no doubt that this decision will lead to a deterioration in the quality of the environment at Cotswold. It could put our work in jeopardy. It is a sad reflection of the times we live in that politicians are prepared to take this risk.

Postscript 2

On the 18 February 1992 the County Council meeting rejected the Social Services Committee’s motion and decided on a compromise of 81 acres, which is much more reasonable. I am feeling a bit more optimistic again. Our next objective is to move into the voluntary sector, under a charitable trust and, through negotiating a long lease, achieving security of tenure.

  • Balbernie, R. (1973) The Management of an Evolving Care System” in “Residential Establishments. The Evolving of Caring Systems. University of Dundee.
  • Dockar-Drysdale B. (1990) The Provision of Primary Experience Free Association Books, London.
  • Hinshelwood, R.D. (1987) What Happens in Groups Free Association Books.
  • Menzies, I. (1979) “Staff Support Systems: Task and Anti-Task in Adolescent Institutions” in Therapeutic Communities: Reflections and Progress. Eds. Hinshelwood, R.D. and Manning, N. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Rice, A.K. (1968) “Working Note No. 1 Cotswold Community and Schools.” Centre for Applied Social Research, Tavistock Centre (unpublished).
  • Wills, W.D. (1971) Spare the Child Harmonsmith, Penguin Books.
  • Winnicott, D.W. (1965) The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment Hogarth Press.