LATE NEWS: later on Monday (March 11) Wiltshire Council announced a change of policy: “Wiltshire Council has confirmed that 12 community friendship clubs for disabled people will continue to get funding for 2019/20, with a new funding model announced last week put on hold.” Fuller story follows tomorrow. Staff at Marlborough’s New Road Centre are still in shock over Wiltshire Council’s decision to ‘terminate’ their annual grant at the end of May.
The centre – which is a registered charity – opens three days week to give adults with learning difficulties, Downs, physical disabilities and mental health issues care, good things to make and do, chat and a hot lunch if they want it. For some of the centre’s members that is the only hot meal they get.
The Centre’s Chair, Debbie Bond, calls the service they provide a ‘kind of home from home’: “A lot don’t have families – they have carers who come and go – and we’re like a family for them. They make friends here and make attachments to people – they need consistency. We would not do it if we were not adding to their quality of life.”
At present, the centre has thirty-two clients on its books. They have three part time paid staff. And they have ten volunteers – “They’re brilliant and we cannot do it without them”.
They rent Christchurch’s anteroom and small kitchen. Their current grant from Wiltshire Council is £36,000 – after a ten per cent cut a couple of years ago. And it has not increased with inflation for at least the past ten years. Debbie Bond: “It’s been a battle to keep going.”
Mrs Bond told marlborough.news: “We are incredibly cheap – if you divide the Council grant by the days we’re open and the number of clients each day, the cost is about £24.63 a day. In some local authorities the cost of similar day care is £40-50 a day.”
Long gone are the days when people like those who enjoy their day at the centre had an allocated social worker: “Clients like ours are more vulnerable now than they’ve ever been. Some of our members come in on a Monday morning and they’ve not seen anyone else since their time here the previous Thursday. And most of them can’t do things out and about on their own.”
The Wiltshire Council statement announcing the cuts, classed the New Road Centre as a ‘community friendship club’. It said that the total sum of money allocated to 13 ‘friendship clubs’ throughout the county had been £124,000. The new Council budget (for 2019/2020) includes £62,000 “to develop a standard countywide scheme” for these ‘friendship clubs’.
It continued: “All clubs have been offered the opportunity to develop and influence the council’s vision of delivering these services in the future, and work with council commissioners in the spirit of co-production…The council will also be offering advice to clubs about alternative funding sources that might be available to explore and staff are available to meet with groups if they wish to do so.”
One source of funding suggested is the Council’s Area Boards. The main problem with raising money for this kind of service is that many funders – and especially Area Boards – fund projects, but will not fund running costs. Rent, salaries and food costs are simply not targets for charitable trusts and company community funds.
What is more applying for funding takes a lot of time and expertise.
Wiltshire Council Cabinet member Jerry Wickham spoke about future plans: “Our aim is to support friendship clubs on their way to becoming self-sufficient for the long-term. We have to think a bit differently on how we spend money and we hope that once we’ve spoken in detail with the clubs affected they will be keen to be part of what we’re trying to achieve.”
Debbie Bond and her team of staff and the Centre’s six trustees are determined to stay open: “We have to keep going – we owe it to our members here – some of them are very much on their own. It’s another home – it’s welcoming and comfortable for them – and it’s safe. That’s vital.”
From my visit there today, I can see clearly why Marlborough needs to keep the New Road Centre open – and that the dedicated staff and volunteers must be supported.