Since February SOHS have worked with service users and attended Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee meetings at County Hall. Public pressure on the council and the committee in particular has led to pausing the so called consultation but SOHS wonder how seriously the council are taking the plight of service users. Extraordinarily enough, at time of writing (early September 2023) The original consultation is still posted online, with the original start and closing dates, but it seems you can still complete it. At the end of July advice and information about extending or revising the consultion had not appeared anywhere in public other than to say that Council are reviewing the situation. However, by early August local press had reports of a re-think, after considerable criticism from SOHS, Bideford councillor James Craigie, Ilfracombe councillor Terry Elliott and some of the braver service users themselves. At present the re-think does not seem aimed higher than a further consultation which looks suspiciously like an action replay of the previous one.
The links below give some idea of how things moved forward since March.
On 15 March 2023 Devon live posted the following
On 21 March HACSC held a meeting to discuss the consultation and cuts to services. One member of the committee proposed that wider rather than reduced use of services like the Link Centres should be used across the whole county. The rationale for changing the system was challenged not only by the public attending – members of SOHS and some of the service users, as well as Cllr Terry Elliott from Ilfracombe – but by some members of the committee as well.
This document was drawn up following the next HACSC meeting on 13 June with the intention of presenting for full cabinet decisions on 12 July. By 1 August the local press was presenting the case put by the local communities in Bideford and Ilfracombe (https://www.northdevongazette.co.uk/news/local-news/1261900/the-fight-is-on-to-save-north-devon-s-link-centres-mental-health-cuts.html) and in the NDJournal a day later (https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/anger-over-plans-shut-devon-8644271) and on 4 August (https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/people-power-triumphs-devon-mental-8652122)
This is the consultation form which is still online but with no change to the advertised start and finish dates:
This was Devon Live on 4 August 2023:
Cllr Craigie said: “The link centre provides a good service in a building which is ideal for its purpose as we don’t have any community centres in the town. People are more in need than ever since the pandemic where they became isolated and separated from others. And lots are struggling financially which is one of the many causes of stress.
“When you consider that it costs £800 a day to keep a mental health patient in hospital and £250 to have a mental health assessment at the RD&E, it makes no sense to get rid of the link centre which is preventing people having to go into hospital or have additional care.”
Devon County Council says it is facing “huge financial pressure” and must get the best outcome for every penny spent, hence it is reviewing all areas of its work. The centres in Bideford and Ilfracombe will cost around £306,000 to maintain over the next five years, it says.
Since these reports came out Cllr Elliott has managed to get Cllr James McInnes, the architect of the closure plans, and North Devon Conservative MP Selaine Saxby, to visit Ilfracombe for an open discussion, together with some of the service users, about the absolute necessity of keeping the service open. See this link for coverage of the visit (https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/mp-urges-council-rethink-closure-8728353).
After her face-to-face visit, Selaine Saxby appears to be supporting the retention of the link centres and has warm words to say about the importance of the service they give, but it is the conservative government which is depriving Devon County Council of the funds they desperately need.
On 11 September Cllr Elliott sent this letter to Solveig Wright, Head of Integrated Adult Social Care-Commissioning at Devon County Council. We hope it has some effect.
REQUEST TO URGENTLY REOPEN REFERRAL ROUTES FOR NORTH DEVON LINK CENTRES
Firstly, can I thank you for attending a meeting in August with people who currently use the Ilfracombe Link Centre service. It was also welcome to see Cllr James McInnes, Cllr Paul Crabb and Selaine Saxby MP attending the meeting alongside yourself, but very disappointing that there was not DPT representation.
I am sure that hearing the testimony of people who attended, and who are currently experiencing mental ill health, that a number of issues arose which should be significant for any future considerations around the future of the service.
The first was the severity of mental illness experienced by people who use the service. It was apparent to me in the meeting that you, and the other attendees, were perhaps under the apprehension that the Link Centres were a light touch well-being service for people with a mild degree of mental ill health. This may have been the original objective of the service when it was first established in 1992 but it is my conjecture that this has not been the case for some time. Indeed currently, with the only referral route being via assessment at the request of the CMHT, the service is restricted only to those with more moderate to severe needs, although it has to be said at this juncture that very few, if any, assessments appear to be taking place. As you, yourself, witnessed, there were many people who bravely gave testimony at the meeting whose level of illness was quite significant and for whom the Link Centres provide life saving and life enhancing support. Put quite simply, and as many participants so clearly advocated themselves, without the Link Centre they did not feel that they would still be here today.
I do feel that if Officers and elected representatives had taken the time to visit Link Centres two years ago when proposed closures were first mooted, that you would have had a far greater understanding of what the current service offers and how important it is. I do hope that you intend to repeat this exercise in actually talking to people who use the service in both Barnstaple and Bideford so that you have a clear level of the extent of need going forward. There is no substitute for talking and listening to people who use a service in order to understand what it offers to those who are chronically or severely unwell.
The second issue which was apparent, was that Cllrs and yourself were of a belief that there is alternative provision available for people with moderate to severe mental ill health (or even mild mental illness come to that). There was palpable shock in the room when this claim was made. People were able to relate quite clearly that this was simply not the case. It was also obvious that the kind of support and help that people needed, given their illness, was not the sort that can be achieved through light touch membership of community choirs or attendance at coffee mornings. I hope you can agree on this. What came through very strongly is that people needed safe space, consistency, experienced support and privacy to work though some quite pronounced health issues.
My reason for writing to you post meeting is to not only highlight the main issues that arose but to also draw your attention to the fact that Ilfracombe, Bideford and Barnstaple all have high levels of unmet mental health need currently which could be addressed if people were able to be referred direct to the Link Centres AND if the Link Centres resumed a full programme as they had pre Covid. In a Town like Ilfracombe, for example, this is absolutely urgent and vital to address the tsunami of health inequality emerging as a result of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis and their twin impact on a constituency already impacted by deprivation. Devon County Council is rightly focusing on Ilfracombe as somewhere that needs increased input and effort to address these structural inequalities around housing, income, welfare, education and health outcomes but a large part of its effort must focus on mental health which is at record levels in our Town. It has been a cruel and protracted process around the ‘will they, won’t they close’ debate over the last two years and we are now faced with the prospect of another proposal and more consultation. In the meantime real people are suffering. Those that already use the service, and for whom it is vital, are beset by on-going anxiety that they will lose it and the fact that there is nothing out there that could in any way replace what they receive. Those people who desperately need this kind of support have been left to get more and more unwell. Meanwhile the service appears to have been deliberately run down and whilst it is in hiatus, skilled staff have left and have not been replaced and yet still we are limited to two afternoons a week when the reality is that we actually need 7 day a week provision given the level of demand.
So my call is to:
- Reinstate self referral and third party referral routes such as GPs, Community Connectors and Health and Well-being Coordinators in Ilfracombe, Bideford and Barnstaple. All are overwhelmed with people experiencing poor or very poor mental health. Please make time to talk to these agencies before you finish drawing up proposals.
- Reinstate a 4-5 day a week service including group work, activities and support around IT and form filling.
- Recruit new staff to support a reinstated service.
I do hope that you will take note of the contents of this letter as the health of every individual in our communities matter and it is a dereliction of responsibility of every level of Government and health service department, not to properly provide the support and treatment required to keep people well and alive.
I will send a copy of this letter to Cllr McInnes, Cllr Crabb and Selaine Saxby MP who were all present at the meeting, but please feel free to send this communication on to others you may feel to be important in the debate about the future of the Link Centres.
Dr Terry Elliott