Future of Norfolk’s day care services facing an uncertain 12 months
For people using day centres, along with their families and carers, a worrying 12 months await.
Norfolk County Council is expected to vote in favour of the next �3.5m cut from the service, with centre charges increasing, transport arrangements changing and staff levels being cut.
But Monday's decision will be another attempt to trim the service before tackling the future of each of the council's 23 centres.
No announcements on these buildings, which provide care and support for 1,700 people, are expected until 2013.
Norfolk's centres will be grouped into different areas based on location and examined, with no threat of a blanket closure on the horizon yet.
It is an unenviable task for the authority.
The government is forcing local authorities to slash their budgets while demand for adult social care services increases.
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And if the council makes the wrong decisions now, its bills will only continue to soar.
Mark Harrison, chief executive of the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, said there was still not enough evidence to suggest every other potential way of making savings had been explored before cutting services.
He said Norfolk's disabled population was already underfunded and the proposed changes would worsen the situation.
'I think everybody, apart from the government, agrees the age of austerity isn't working. So we need Norfolk's politicians, the MPs and the county councillors, to step up to the plate and put the interests of Norfolk people before the interests of their government, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats,' he said.
'This is so they can tell the government it's not possible to take that amount of money out of the system without making changes to frontline services. They are cutting frontline services when there is a whole load of other things they could be doing to save money – spending reserves, raising council tax and joining up with other authorities so they can get economies of scale.'
Councillors have already been pressured into a U-turn by the EDP-backed Cut Cake Not Care Campaign, led by Age UK Norfolk and Age UK Norwich, plus Unison talks.
The authority reinstated �185,000 into its budget to monitor care standards after concerns were raised that cutting the cash could jeopardise the safety of elderly people while the service was overhauled.
Council leader Derrick Murphy instructed senior officers and councillors to investigate whether the money could be made available.
And Jonathan Dunning, Norfolk branch secretary for Unison, said he would like to see the council use some of its near �90m reserves to delay further cutbacks.
Mr Dunning said this would allow extra research to take place on how best to deliver services.
He said: 'We would prefer the �3.5m not to be in the budget as a cut for the next financial year. We recognise the county council has to make cuts. But where we are coming from is the figure the council is looking to cut is significant. As far as we are aware there's no strategy of how to do that in the next financial year.
'The only way we think they can do this is through closures and denying users access to centres. We would like the cut not to be made at all but at the very least some money from the county council's reserves could be used to prop up the budget for 2012/13 while more detailed work is done to see the solutions.'
Government policy to give people control of their own care allowances, known as personal budgets, is also fuelling the changes.
The aim is to give people more choice and allow them to pay for activities other than the traditional day centre visit. By April 2013, local authorities need to have transferred everyone eligible for financial help onto the new system.
But the policy also leaves day centres unclear about how much money they will receive. Visitor numbers will be more likely to vary and it also places extra pressure on organisations to create services that people will want to use.
In Norfolk, day centres run by voluntary groups, charities and other organisations will be affected from September.
The authority has created a one-off �2.5m budget, which will be given to clubs and centres that need the most help to survive the changeover. But the uncertain future is unsurprisingly causing concern among people.
Marie Mills said her husband, Brian, 68, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was able to receive specialist support and take part in activities during his visits to two day centres each week, including Meadow House in Swaffham.
And Mrs Mills, of Downham Market, said the services not only gave her a break but also a chance to visit the couple's daughter Tina, 45, who is in residential care to cater for her specialist needs.
But the 67-year-old said she was concerned about how she could see both Brian and Tina if the day services stopped. Mrs Mills said: 'We do use the personal budget for Brian to pay for day centres and it's really good. We could have bought in another service but we can't find a better thing for Brian.'
On an encouraging note, the county council is reporting most people who now use a personal budget have said they want to continue using day centres.
And David Harwood, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for adult and community services, said there were plans being developed to give people a greater say about the future of their services.