Go-ahead for move to take centres out of council hands

A shake-up of learning disability day services which could see them taken out of direct council control has been given the go-ahead.

Northumberland county councillors have backed proposals to team up with an external care provider to run the authority’s five day centres and three horticultural skills units as social enterprises.

It is hoped the move would enable the centres – including those at West Sleekburn, Blyth, Bedlington and Hepscott Park – to expand their commercial activities and help their users secure jobs.

They could also take on more social and health care services in the future.

The facilities – including Bedlington Day Centre, Blyth’s Riverside Centre and the Hepscott Park and Sleekburn horticultural units, are used by 359 people altogether and have an annual budget of £4.3m between them.

Most users attend between two and five sessions a week.

The council currently runs the centres in house, but it says they need to evolve dramatically to meet changing expectations and demands.

Due to financial pressures, the authority has warned that the current model would be difficult to sustain, leading to the possibility of centres being forced to close.

The government has also told councils 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 access more funding sources.

There would also be more freedom to develop their commercial operations, such as candle and gift making in Blyth and garden makeover work and plant sales at the horticultural centres.

The council has already set aside £340,000 to develop the Hepscott Park site by refurbishing buildings, improving disabled access and restoring greenhouses.

It is planning to use part of a £115,000 surplus from trading activities by the day services to demolish under-used brick outbuildings and make room for a café and shop.

The council’s executive member for adult care and wellbeing, Ian Lindley, pictured, of Morpeth Stobhill, 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 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.”

Existing day centre staff would transfer to the new social enterprise, a non-profit making body, with any surpluses invested in services.

The target is to launch the social enterprise by April.