Care is a Societal Issue – Case of the Butterfly Garden.

by Bob Rhodes and Chris Brown

This article describes the erosion of communities of all kinds and how one can still cultivate culture and community development in an environment when operating outside of the bureaucratic landscape designed by governments and systems.

Consistent characteristics across any thriving community include having a shared purpose, interacting frequently, and members supporting each other (Jeffrey, 2023). The general public perception that the ‘social glue’ of our communities has progressively diluted, has been evidenced by numerous research. In 2008 Sheffield University (Dorling et al., 2008) reported, “… the weakest communities in 1971 were stronger than the strongest communities in 2001”. In those 30 years, an astonishing 97% of neighbourhoods had experienced increased isolation. This epidemic of isolation and individualistic behaviours particularly prevalent in western culture is in direct conflict with the fundamental building blocks of community development. Onward (2020) adds, “people are less likely to be a member of a local group or volunteer, to attend church or community activities, or go on trips with their families than they were even ten years ago. They are less generous with their money to charities and with their trust to the civic institutions that comprise the social fabric”.

The grandfather of asset-based thinking and practice, John McKnight, described the dominant consumerist culture as being, “if you want a good life, buy our stuff” (1). One of today’s leading social philosophers, William MacAskill, fears that neo-liberal, authoritarian culture is not just dominating much of the world but on the verge of being “locked-in” (2). The celebrated polymath, David Fleming (1940 – 2010), saw the monetarist- inspired imposition of transactional culture on public services of the Regan- Thatcher era as a system doomed for inevitable collapse and described the centralisation, standardisation, bureaucratisation, and scaling that would attend its demise, and which we are presently experiencing, with stunning accuracy (3). In, inter alia, Beyond Command and Control (4) John Seddon catalogued the systemic lunacies implicit to a culture in free-fall and proposed proven, more democratic and effective alternative strategies.

With research so conclusively revealing that community is disappearing at an alarming rate, one might assume that this is in accordance with the evolving needs of 21st century society. While there is little dispute that systems imposed by governments and institutions have contributed to the dismantling of community, the likes of Sunder Katwala, CEO of British Future (2020) argue that “most people would like to feel more connected with their neighbours and people in their community”.

The evidence of The Butterfly Garden community supports the assertion that people want to participate but with Government off their backs. Perhaps this should be no surprise. The principle of institutional power ‘Stepping Back’ to make space for the natural interdependent culture of community to blossom was made explicit by practitioners like Henry Moore during latter stages of the 20th century and promoted as fundamental to Asset Based Community Development.

Care cannot be transacted

LivesthroughFriends is a social services agency with its roots, purposes and principles deep set in the culture that predated the commoditisation of ‘social care’ in the UK. We remember the experientially-based evolution of social services during the 1970s and early 80’s, culminating in government commissioning the Barclay Committee who advised them in 1982 that, “if social needs of citizens are to be met in the last years of the twentieth century, the personal social services must develop a close working partnership with citizens focussing more closely on the community and its strengths. A move towards what we are calling community social work is the start of such a development.” Subsequently we have been participant observers of the unfolding catastrophe resulting from the government’s ideologically based rejection of this expert advice and persistent demonstrators, always against the grain, of more ‘communitarian’ and sustainable alternatives. We are unwavering in our appreciation that care cannot be transacted. Services should be supplementary and complementary to those essentials to human wellbeing that can only derive from relatively selfless and reciprocal relationships – love, belonging, social capital, etc. We have evolved, with many partners, approaches to assisting folk with complex needs to pursue their best-included and contributing lives, despite a deficit focused and increasingly rationed public system.

Concurrently we have become aware of a growing number of grassroots ‘lay’ initiatives that have emerged and prospered and effectively refused to engage with the public system – not only choosing not to engage with commissioning processes but refusing overtures with ‘strings attached’. One such is the Butterfly Garden, located near to largely affluent town of Cheltenham Spa in the UK. There was never a plan to set up the project, at least not until the summer of 2002 when six young autistic students were visiting a small commercial Nursery and Garden Centre on the outskirts of Cheltenham Spa. They came, innocently enough, seeking gardening advice and unwittingly became the pioneer founders of ‘The Butterfly Garden’. Invited to return and with guidance they teased life into a small, previously unused patch… and people heard about it.

Chris Evans, the owner and social entrepreneur whose openness to ‘adventure’ and relationships empowered the initiative, says that by autumn, a quarter of an acre of overgrown, derelict land was fenced off, a development plan was drawn up and as the months advanced this derelict space was transformed. Today the garden extends across more than four acres. It weaves and entwines with ‘the original business’ (that still operates), there is an emulation, and sharing of daily tasks, that makes the experience very real. Now, over one hundred ‘students’ attend each week and a myriad of passionate volunteers. No one pays, and, until recently, no one is paid. (Chris, now in his 60’s, is thinking about what might happen if he cannot continue and is “experimenting” by employing 2 part- time coordinators).

The Butterfly Garden is no longer just about gardening. As the project has evolved, people have just turned up offering help and services (amongst them teachers and care workers) and today the provision is both diverse and stimulating. Volunteers – including beneficiaries – have free rein to share their gifts and enthusiasms, supporting art, music, woodwork and catering as well as gardening.

The very essence of the Butterfly Garden can be summed up as a resistance to institutionalisation and a celebration of self-realisation, interdependence, welcoming, and community. Chris and the charity’s Trustees (most of whom are volunteers, beneficiaries or both) are averse to the receipt of any funds with strings attached. There is a constant flow of referrals from the local authority, NHS, and commissioned care providers but no contracts and funding ensue. Enquirers are simply reminded that the project has an ‘Open Door’ policy and that any citizen is welcome to come along to participate and contribute as they wish. The project describes itself as an educational, therapeutic and recreational scheme for people of all ages dealing with disablement of any kind. It caters for those looking to escape the world, those looking to re-enter it and some, who are still just looking.

In revenue terms, the project runs on around £50k per annum. When we visited to conduct interviews, barely 3 months into the year (2023), around half of that had been received in unsolicited donations. Capital schemes seem even more attractive to local well-wishers. A National Lottery application for £50k was unsuccessful as the panel felt the charity’s aspirations were unrealistic within the budget sought. The total cost of the project once completed was only £1,500 given contributions from the community, including a gift of land. This seems to reflect the current hegemony’s ‘talent’ for knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

IACD Practice Insights Magazine – Issue 21, March 2024.