Update: More than 2,900 people sign online petition to save the Ashcroft residential home

Carol Brady uses Ashcroft Residential Home for respite care but it is closing as Norfolk CCC has cut

Carol Brady uses Ashcroft Residential Home for respite care but it is closing as Norfolk CCC has cut its funding. Picture by SIMON FINLAY. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

Optimism has grown that a threatened unit for women's mental health may yet survive. SAM RUSSELL reports on the campaign to save it.

For many women, the Ashcroft residential home has been an essential lifeline.

But the future of the 14-bed residential home in the village of Wicklewood, near Wymondham, has been thrown into doubt after the Julian Support charity, which runs it, said a proposed reduction in funding from Norfolk County Council would mean a safe level of staffing could not be provided, and it could be forced to close in March.

Support for the centre is clear, with more than 2,300 people signing an online petition to save it, and yesterday the pessimism about its threatened demise started to lift as the council and charity said a 'positive conversation' had seen movement on both sides that could contribute to its survival.

In a joint statement, they said: 'We both recognise that Ashcroft is a valuable service that provides very specific support to a number of vulnerable women.

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'Julian Support has been able to identify ways to reduce their costs, and the council has increased its funding offer to a level which Julian Support believe would enable them to continue providing a safe and good quality level of care for the seven beds purchased by the council.

'In addition, the council will continue to work with Julian Support to try to increase the viability of the home and make the service's future more secure.

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'Both Julian Support and the county council are aware that the uncertainty surrounding Ashcroft has caused a lot of concern, particularly among those who are currently being supported at the home or who have benefitted from the service in the past, and we are keen to work together to find a solution.'

Many women who have stayed at Ashcroft have a diagnosis of personality disorder, self-harm as a way of coping, have previously been hospitalised after a crisis and speak of traumatic childhood experiences.

Ben Curran, Norfolk head of operations for the charity, said of the online petition, which was started by service users: 'It demonstrates that there's a real public concern about what's happening, and there are some very heartfelt comments that people have posted on the campaign site.'

Carol Brady, from Norwich, stayed in the care home for six months in 2007, and has used it since for respite care.

'Without Ashcroft I probably wouldn't be here today,' she said. 'The staff are brilliant and understanding of what I'm going through. 'They have helped me so much.

'It is absolutely ridiculous that it is closing.

'There is nowhere else like it.'

Norfolk County Council has a contract for seven beds at £745 a week per bed, but the proposals would have reduced this to £593 per bed in the next financial year.

Mr Curran said it would be unsafe to have fewer than two staff on duty at the home at any one time, and that this could not be done for less than £651 per bed per week.

But a county council spokesman had said that 'comparable services' were run on a lower budget.

Service users claim there are no comparable services as Ashcroft was the only women's only mental health unit in Norfolk, and one of relatively few in the country.

A county council spokesman said the authority had worked with Julian Support for 18 months to try to make the home economically viable, but the charity had decided to close the centre.

• I will feel lost without Ashcroft

Sarah Streeter, 37 of Norwich, was in and out of hospital for three years before she discovered Ashcroft.

But since accessing its help in 2005, she has not been in hospital at all, instead visiting Ashcroft three times per year for respite.

'It has had such a positive effect on my wellbeing,' she said. 'I have had only a few minor crises in the last few years and these have always been resolved by attending Ashcroft.'

She said it offered a unique service as it was women-only.

'There are women who go to Ashcroft because it is inappropriate or impossible for them to be in a mixed gender environment,' she explained. 'If Ashcroft closes as planned at the end of March, a lot of vulnerable women are going to be put in a very vulnerable situation.

'I personally am very scared about the prospect of having to find another suitable respite facility because Ashcroft has been a perfect solution to my needs.'

She said closure would put pressure on other services including GP surgeries, A&E departments, hospitals, voluntary organisations and other residential facilities.

Social workers are in the process of contacting service users to help them to plan alternatives.

But Ms Streeter said she was worried, and services were already thinly-stretched.

'My experiences of being in hospital have been good and bad but even a few days in hospital affected me for the following months due to getting in such a deep crisis,' she said. 'The financial cost to the trust and the emotional cost to myself are far much more than a couple of weeks respite at Ashcroft.

'Hospital beds have also been cut recently making some people travel to different parts of the country to receive treatment which costs even more than being treated locally.

I am very independent.

'I live on my own and I only ask for more support from services if I am having a crisis.

'I pre plan my respite stays because knowing that Ashcroft is there, helps me get through tough times and I will feel lost without Ashcroft.'

• To see the online petition, see you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-ashcroft

• What do you think? Write (giving full contact details) to edpletters@archant.co.uk

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