BACKGROUND: The pattern of residential services for people with intellectual disability in England has changed dramatically since 1971, with many more places being made available in residential homes in the community. The aim of the present study was to assess the needs and characteristics of residents and features of all the residential homes provided by a national charity. METHOD: Assessments of adaptive behaviour, problem behaviour and social impairment were completed by staff who knew residents well; information about costs and staffing was provided from central records. RESULTS: A significant proportion of residents have important care needs relating to their skills, their behaviour and their social abilities. Residents with these needs are dispersed throughout services, so that a large majority of services include one or more residents with relatively complex needs. CONCLUSIONS: Compared with services in the late 1980s, these services care for a much more disabled client group. Since individuals with high levels of particular needs are typically distributed throughout services, a very high proportion of services require staff who have relatively advanced skills. Current national plans do not adequately address this need and case management arrangements may encourage the re-creation of more institutional services. DECLARATION OF INTEREST: The first author is a Trustee of the charity.