Solent councils brace themselves for the impact of spending cuts

Despite council reassurances to protect frontline services while making cuts Jeremy Dunning finds that a major scaling back is underway in Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight

Despite council reassurances to protect frontline services while making cuts, Jeremy Dunning finds that a major scaling back is underway in Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight

Fear, uncertainty and anger are common themes among service users, charities, councils and social workers in the Solent area as they confront the realities of last month’s comprehensive spending review.

Portsmouth, Southampton and Isle of Wight councils will be on the receiving end of the 28% cut in council funding from Whitehall from 2010-11 to 2014-15 announced by chancellor George Osborne.

Efficiencies have already been taking place but there is an acknowledgement across all three areas that cuts will have to be carried through in adult social care.

At the same time, provider organisations and users are warning of increased risks of homelessness, substance misuse and self-harm as a result of local budget cuts and the government’s welfare reform plans.

Southampton Council increased charges for users last year, to raise an extra £300,000, but has not ruled out doing so again.

In Portsmouth, the council plans to raise eligibility thresholds to “substantial”, excluding people with moderate needs from receiving support.

The council has sought to make savings without hitting the frontline.

This includes installing joint commissioning between community services and the local primary care trust, and the integration of reablement and rehabilitation services with the NHS. This could generate a saving of £1m a year, against an adult social care budget of £46.2m a year. The council has also generated savings by promoting care at home, allowing the closure of four of its care homes in recent years.

However, in July, the council revised its overall savings target for 2011-12 from £6.5m to £15m, in anticipation of the spending review.

Barbara Geary, strategic director for adult services, housing and health, says she intends the rise in eligibility thresholds to be short-term, adding: “It doesn’t make sense financially because if you don’t get in there early, their needs will escalate, but as budgets shrink it becomes more and more difficult to retain ‘moderate’.”

She says: “We are consciously trying to keep services while having to shrink.”

However she says the answers are not clear. “Everyone in government and outside have concerns about how we will manage to ensure that the resources get to those most in need, in the right shape and at the right time.”

One way it has been saving money is through the increasing usage of temporary contracts for social workers, according to a union source.

The source says: “We’re employing people on short-term contracts. The result is we’ve got a lot of newly qualified social workers on six month contracts and we would much rather have a mix of people.”

The source says that other suggestions include no sick pay for the first three days and people voluntarily working four days a week, though the council stresses no decisions have been taken on them.

He adds: “Morale is very low. There’s a lot of confusion because the managers are running around wondering how they will manage these budget cuts.”

Geary says while other council staff are being placed on short-term contracts, social workers are not, though admits there are longstanding issues with retaining newly qualified staff and recruiting more senior practitioners, leading to problems with staff mix.

A ferry ride away in the Isle of Wight, the council plans to go further by raising eligibility thresholds from “substantial” to “critical”, putting it among a handful of councils in the country to do so. It also plans to end its flagship of policy free care at home for those aged over 80. Its proposals add up to a saving of £3.6m a year, against a current adult care spend of £39.3m.

Ian Anderson, director of community services, says: “Times will be tough. We will use the money available to us much more effectively and by targeting it. The situation we’ve got is one that offers opportunities and threats.”

The councils’ plans are taking their toll on the third sector, as well as service users.

Jonathan Crutchfield, corporate and property services director for the charity YOU, which provides services for the disabled or those facing social exclusion in the south west, is concerned about cuts to Supporting People services.

In the spending review, the government pledged to provide £6.5bn for Supporting People, which funds housing support for a range of vulnerable groups, from 2011-15. However, this is money rolled up into councils’ overall grant, meaning there is no guarantee over how it will be spent.

Crutchfield says: “If funding is cut then it will impact on some of the most vulnerable people and people who would otherwise be homeless.”

Among those who could be affected is Mark Davis. He has had ongoing psychiatric problems for many years, been sectioned at Broadmoor and been in the medium-secure unit Ravenswood House, in Fareham, Hampshire.

Now he is in a Supporting People-funded service provided by YOU in Gosport, Hampshire, across the Solent from Portsmouth, where he has been for the past five months.

It is staffed during the day and means he is being gradually rehabilitated back into the community.

However, since the funding is not ring-fenced Davis is worried and what makes it worse for him is the “uncertainty” of not knowing.

If the worst happens and funding is removed his worry is that staff could be axed from his placement meaning no-one would be around to monitor residents’ medicine intake.

He said: “All five of us [in the home] would end up in hospital because we would not know what to do with our medicines.”

Crutchfield adds: “I think we will see Supporting People being used to prop up the shortfall in adult social care and that will mean fewer people will receive a service.”

Isle of Wight Council has already done this, cutting its Supporting People funding from £5.5m to £2.8m in 2010-11 to bolster adult social care.

The Portsmouth Disability Forum is another charity fearing council cuts.

The PDF’s income comes through a contract with the city council to provide a variety of services, rent from other disability organisations that use space at its Frank Sorrell centre and a share of other projects it is involved with.

Manager Lynne Rigby says she does not know what will happen but even a small cut could impact on service provision, at a time when, she expects, more disabled people knocking on the organisation’s door asking for advice.

Rigby says PDF users are terrified about the impact of the government’s welfare reforms.

The government plans to reassess 1.5 million incapacity benefit claimants over the next three years, moving about a quarter on to the lower paying jobseeker’s allowance, requiring them to seek work.

Manager Lynne Rigby says: “The concern we have is people who are already vulnerable potentially are going to be put in a more vulnerable position because of loss of benefits.”

She adds: “I’ve had people who’ve sat down and say, ‘I’m terrified because I can’t work, but I can come in and volunteer’.”

These include Sharon Smithson, a 37-year-old who suffers from the spinal condition kyphos scoliosis, which has left her in a wheelchair and in receipt of disability living allowance and income support. She is concerned about whether she will be able to continue volunteering for PDF, as well as the impact of any Portsmouth Council cuts on services she accesses. She adds: “I’m a bit apprehensive as to what changes are going to happen.”

Sharon Smithson

Over in the Isle of Wight, Mark Lacey, 49, saw his budget allocation to pay for attendance at Haylands Farm – a work placement centre for people with learning disabilities – cut to four days a week (see box).

His sister stumped up for the fifth day, but she also has to care for a young family and Lacey adds: “It will be cut again. It’s disgusting.”

Undoubtedly his sister will try to find the money to ensure he can attend when his allocation is cut, but this shows just how the cuts will ripple out and affect everyone, not just those in social care.

The three councils and provider organisations face an enormous challenge to ensure reductions in their grants allow for vulnerable people to retain some degree of care and support.

Solent Mind faces funding cut

Local mental health charity Solent Mind is already facing a cut in funding. Hampshire Council and the county’s primary care trust have decided to terminate existing contracts to support employment support, saving £450,000 a year, as part of a new joint commissioning strategy.

Solent Mind is one of the providers and says the decision came as a surprise.

“We are still waiting to get the impact assessment from them and are still waiting to hear in detail the reasons for their decision,” says chief executive. “We’ve had to put 28 staff at risk of redundancy.”

He adds: “Between the various providers we currently offer 1,000 people with mental health issues every year a chance of getting work, getting into voluntary work or getting vocational training.

“The mental health benefits of getting or staying in work, and the support programmes which build up people’s confidence and resilience, are huge.

“Of course, we are concerned that mental health is having to bear the brunt of the cuts, which, if they target these sorts of preventative services, will end up costing taxpayers more.”

Felicity Hindson, Hampshire Council’s executive member for adult social care, says: “We remain committed to securing high quality mental health services and recognise the importance of employment for mental well-being. Our commissioners, from Hampshire County Council and NHS Hampshire, are working together to commission employment support that is more widely accessible and offers better value for money.”

Learning disability service cuts on the Isle of Wight

Kevin Wood

Social care service user Kevin Wood had to fight hard to keep his financial allocation from Isle of Wight Council this year; next time he may not be so lucky.

Wood, 28, has learning disabilities and gets satisfaction from spending five days a week at Haylands Farm on the Isle of Wight, where he tends his allotment.

The farm, run by Isle of Wight Mencap, offers work placements for people with learning disabilities, catering for 85 people on personal budgets, five on direct payments and eight placed directly by social services. At the farm’s initiation, its contract with social services will end in January, with six of the remaining eight users due to go on to personal budgets.

Wood, who was previously placed by social services, says he almost had his placement cut this year. “It made me angry [I had to fight so hard] because I didn’t want to lose all my days at the farm. I felt really angry and upset that the council cut it the first time I applied.”

But Wood, who is now on a personal budget, is set to have his funding cut next year under plans for the council to raise its eligibility threshold to “critical”, meaning it will cease funding service users’ “substantial” needs. Such cutbacks are causing fear, anxiety and anger among users and parents.

Wood says: “I know they are going to cut it [next time] but I will go to a lawyer and fight my battle to try and get my money to come here. It would be boring for me if I didn’t come here.”

Such a sentiment is shared by other users at the farm. Ultimately it may have to look for help from its parent body.

It requires £180,000 a year to keep the scheme going through a combination of funding from care users, income from the sale of goods such as Christmas trees and money from donations and grants.

Already the parents or carers of some users are dipping into their own pockets to supplement budgets, such as the sister of service user Mark Lacey (see main text).

John Phillips

Mencap trustee John Phillips says: “It’s the government’s fault, but also I think the council is using this to cut out things they don’t want to do.”

The council says its budget is under “considerable pressure”. In the case of Haylands Farm, it says it is moving away from “a pretend work environment” for disabled people and into “real jobs in the community”.

This article is published in the 11 NOvember issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Wielding the axe

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