Opposition to controversial Norfolk care cuts plans shines through as councillors consider Big Conversation

Evidence of the strength of feeling against controversial plans to cut funding for services to support vulnerable adults was plain to see at a packed council meeting yesterday.

Members of Norfolk County Council's community services overview and scrutiny panel met to consider plans to cut funding for adult social care by nearly �80m in the next three years and hear details of the response to the Big Conversation proposals.

The proposals are aimed at reshaping the council in the year's to come and also help bridge a �155m funding gap in the next three years in the wake of government cuts in public spending.

Members of the public also turned up in force at the meeting where concerns were raised from representatives of Age UK Norwich, the Norfolk Older People's Forum, and individual service users.

The Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People and the Benjamin Foundation had also each produced DVDs which they hoped could be viewed at the meeting detailing their concerns. A 1187 signature petition opposing the care cuts plans was also handed in by Green councillor Stephen Little, while Age UK Norfolk presented a cake to the council as part of its 'Cut Cake, not Care' campaign.

However, to the surprise of many councillors, committee chairman Diane Irving made it clear at the start that councillors could not make alternative recommendations to the ruling cabinet, but would be restricted to 'comments and questions', fuelling speculation among the opposition that the session was a political stitch up among the ruling Conservative group. She also rejected a request by Lib Dem councillor James Joyce to show the DVDS at the start of the meeting as it was felt that it would give both groups an unfair advantage over other submissions.

Yet of the responses received it was clear that there was overwhelming opposition to the three most controversial proposals, cutting �18m funding for preventative services, withdrawing the �1.2m funding for the sensory support service, and tightening up the eligibility criteria for those people receiving care to critical only.

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The council received more than 1,800 responses to plans tighten up the eligibility criteria rules with a majority opposing the idea amid fears it would prove a false economy and put more pressure on carers and the health service. There were also 1,600 responses to plans to scrap the sensory services unit with the majority of people against the idea.

The majority of the 1,600 responses to plans to cut funding for preventative services were also opposed to the idea.

However, plans to overhaul the meals-on-wheels service also generated more than 2,000 responses with slightly more in favour of the plans

Emily Millington-Smith, chairman of the Norfolk Older People's Forum, told the meeting it was unrealistic to expect volunteers to step in and do all the work currently done by the council and the authority still needed to provide proper support to help.

'We mustn't live in a fairyland,' she said. 'We have to recognise that not everyone wants to care for their next door neighbour.'

Phil Wells, chief executive of Age UK Norwich, said it was wrong for the council to cut spending on preventative services at a time when costs will increase because of greater demand.

'How are you going to reduce costs with a rising population if you do not invest in this, it's upside down,' he said. 'I understand the problems they have got, but they are going about it in the wrong way.'

Conservative councillor Janet Murphy, said she was not convinced that other bodies could take on the work done by the sensory services unit.

'I think there are quite a few areas where the sensory services unit has practical expertise which is well regarded nationally, not just in Norfolk,' she said.

Hellesdon councillor Shelagh Gurney, said: 'The big issue to come to me is about the change in the eligibility criteria, people are very concerned about this and very worried about it.'

While another Conservative, Roger Smith, said he had received a lot feedback from people concerned about the plans.

'The question I am getting from residents is 'if I no longer qualify or if the social care I am currently receiving is changed, will I be left in the lurch',' he said. 'It's certainly creating a lot of anxiety among those people who are receiving these services.'

Harold Bodmer, director of adult social services, said the changes to the eligibility criteria did not mean that people would automatically lose their services, and there would be advice and support in place for those who did.

'We need to be very clear by removing a service from somebody we do not make their needs critical, because we would have to provide a service anyway,' he said.