LEARNING disability day services could be taken out of direct council control.
But a long-serving Northumberland carer has spoken of his concerns over the move.
Senior councillors have backed proposals for Northumberland County Council to team up with an external care provider to transform its five day centres and three horticultural skills units into a social enterprise.
It is hoped the move will enable the centres to expand their commercial activities, as well as take on more social and health care services in the future.
The facilities, including Hepscott Park Horticultural Unit, are used by 359 people, with an annual budget of £4.3m.
Each has its own unique range of activities, as well as running a weekly programme of therapeutic, educational and leisure opportunities and offering outings further afield, with most users attending between two and five sessions a week.
The council currently runs the facilities in-house, but it says they need to dramatically evolve to meet changing expectations and demands.
And due to financial pressures, the authority has warned that the current model would be difficult to sustain, leading to the possibility of centres closing.
In addition, the Government has said that such services should only be provided in-house in exceptional circumstances.
The council’s Senior Policy Manager Stephen Corlett says that making the centres a social enterprise could enable them to respond more flexibly to opportunities, increase links with local communities, support a wider range of people and access more funding sources.
There would also be more freedom to develop their commercial operations, such as a catering project in Alnwick, furniture recycling in Hexham and Berwick, soap, candle and gift making in Blyth and garden make-over work, grounds maintenance and plant sales at the horticultural centres.
Council Executive Member for Adult Care and Wellbeing Ian Lindley said: “Day services for people with a learning disability have changed greatly over the past decade and we know that they need to develop further to meet changing needs and expectations.
“We need to move away from the traditional model where people spend most of their time sitting in the building to a service which helps people to participate more in the ordinary life of the community, getting out and following their own interests.
“We would also like as many people as possible to have the opportunity to prepare for employment or to carry out satisfactory voluntary work.
“We don’t think it’s realistic for the council to try to make these kinds of changes while continuing to run the services directly, but we will ensure there is effective control and accountability to the elected representatives of the people.
“We think the centres have achieved a great deal in recent years and we want to build on that by creating a new kind of organisation to run them, rather than end up having to close the centres and buy the new kinds of support we will need from other organisations.”
Initial discussions with service users and their families stressed the importance of the centres and people were adamant that no arrangements should be made that could endanger their future.
The council has promised that users and their families will be involved in the development of services.
But one carer with 15 years’ experience, who does not wish to be named, says people are still unsure about what the changes will involve.
“They have a plan, but they don’t seem to know what to do with it. How is it going to work in practice?,” he said.
“We have had meetings and a lot of questions have been asked, but there is an awful lot where we have been told they can’t answer them at this time, yet they are trying to bring this in by April.
“I can’t put my hand on my heart and say it is going to be good. To me, it is just a money-saving exercise.
“The problem is it is not understandable for parents and carers and service users.
“It is supposed to be run by a charity, but funding is being cut back for charities now. It seems the wrong thing to do at the wrong time.
“Five or six years ago, before we had all the financial problems, it probably would have stood a good chance and would still be in existence now. It would have been more viable then.
“Now the question has to be asked, are they setting it up to fail?
“To me it seems very rushed. In some ways I think it is a good plan, but it is just how it has been handled.”
The social enterprise would be a non-profit making body, with any surpluses invested into services or wider community benefits.
Existing day centre staff would transfer to the new organisation.
Corporate Director of Adult Services Daljit Lally said: “If a decision is taken to go down the social enterprise route we expect that all staff currently employed in the service will transfer to become part of the new organisation with their existing terms and conditions.
“We will also ensure that staff, service users and carers are consulted at every stage.”
Executive members have called for a detailed report on the options for developing a partnership-based social enterprise and for officers to commission expressions of interest from potential partners.
The target is to launch the social enterprise by April.
Facilities involved are The Pottergate Centre in Alnwick, The Tynedale Centre in Hexham, Bedlington Day Centre, The Riverside Centre in Blyth, The Northstar Centre in Berwick and horticultural units at Ridley Hall, Sleekburn and Hepscott Park.