He said we’re all in it together – but few believed him. Now George Osborne faces anger in his back yard, as his economic ‘Plan A’ takes its toll. Paul Vallely reports
We’ve never had so many members of the public come to a meeting, said the bewildered Conservative leader of Cheshire East County Council, Wesley Fitzgerald, at the start of its cabinet meeting this week. It was so packed that they had to move the councillors’ seating to accommodate the public.
The folk of Knutsford had not come to hear the first item on the agenda – in which a business ratepayer was asking why the council charged small cafés serving tea and buns in the little town of Congleton the same al fresco dining licence as is levied on wildly upmarket restaurants in the chi-chi village of Alderley Edge, which is patronised by the wives and girlfriends of Manchester’s Premier League footballers.
No, the protesters were there because they were alarmed at the council’s plans to close the Stanley Centre, a day centre for disabled adults, and Bexton Court, which has provided respite care for adults with dementia – the only places providing such services in the little market town of Knutsford.
All across the UK, local councils are taking such decisions. But Knutsford is the constituency headquarters of Tatton, whose local MP, George Osborne, is the Chancellor of the Exchequer responsible for those unyielding public spending cuts. The consequences of his policy are being played out on his doorstep.
And he should take note. For those rising up in protest are not the usual gripers whom he can afford to ignore – the dispossessed of the inner cities or Labour-voting public-service workers whose jobs he is slashing.
This is the genteel double-barrelled rebellion of the Tory shires.
The Stanley Centre is a low brick building, about 20 years old, not far from the town centre, on a campus which houses the community hospital, Bexton Court and Tatton Ward, an 18-bed hospital in which local people could recuperate after surgery at the area’s major hospital in Macclesfield. Bexton Court has been “temporarily” closed for the past 12 months. Tatton Ward, too, was mothballed last year.
Flower baskets hang by the Stanley Centre door. Flower beds are bright with geraniums. Inside, the walls are hung with paintings which could be from an infant school, except they are in oils. They are the work of the disabled adults who fill the centre each day.
On the reception desk is the timetable. There are sessions in art, textiles, computers, preserves and gardening. It is lunchtime, and adults with learning disabilities are making their way into a cheery dining room where each table is set with a flower in a small vase. There are about 35 people at the tables.
“It offers a whole range of activities,” Peter Womersley told me before the council meeting. His son Neil, 39, who has mental and physical difficulties and is confined to a wheelchair, has been using the Stanley Centre almost daily for 20 years.
The centre’s users walk into town with staff to go shopping, use the libraries or pick up litter from the town’s parks and commons. They do jigsaws, model from clay or tend their own plants in a greenhouse behind the building. “But it is not just the activities so much as the emotional support they are given by the staff,” Mr Womersley said.
When I ask to see the manager, Andy Brandon, I am told he is not allowed to speak to the press. But, even in the short time I am waiting, the relaxed and supportive atmosphere of the centre is obvious. The care and affection of the staff is evident in every encounter.
“The experience and knowledge of that staff will be lost if the centre closes,” said Charlotte Peters-Rock, whose husband suffers from dementia. She is among those campaigning against the closure. “It is what happened when Bexton Court was ‘temporarily’ closed last year. All its experienced employees were dispersed.”
But it is more than experienced staff who will be lost, said Jean Rees, a widow, whose brother Brian spends almost every day at the centre. “He’s 54 and mentally handicapped,” she said. “I do his breakfast and shave and wash him each morning then he goes off to the centre. It is more than care. It is their building, with their paintings on the walls, and their friends. It’s like a club. For Brian it’s another part of his family. I don’t know how he will react if it closes. People like Brian feel things more deeply, I think.”
East Cheshire council takes a more hard-headed attitude. “Stanley House is a massively under-used building,” the local paper was told by Roland Domleo, the council cabinet member responsible for adult services. “The buildings are getting old and less suitable for purpose.”
Stanley House is an old Victorian building adjoining the Stanley Centre’s purpose-built premises which were recently refurbished. The old house has upper floors which are not used by the centre but which could be rented out as offices, the campaigners believe. But, the councillor says, there is “great pressure” on the adult social care budget with costs increasing by 6 per cent every year due to people living longer.
The council’s solution is a policy which it calls personalisation. This allows those with disability and dementia “to opt to purchase services from the independent sector via a direct payment rather than receiving them from the Council,” according to a document prepared for this week’s meeting. So “service users” are offered “a genuinely empowering alternative to existing day services” in a way which will “stimulate the independent and third-sector market for a greater range of alternative service provision”.
What that really means, Knutsford’s polite protesters say, is that people with disabilities and dementia are to be expected to travel between seven and 14 miles to Congleton, Wilmslow or Macclesfield to much-diminished provision bolted on to local leisure centres there. “Leisure centres are usually located much more conveniently to communities,” according to Mr Domleo. Not more convenient if you live in Knutsford, replied Charlotte Peters-Rock.
At Monday’s county council meeting Ms Peters-Rock made an impassioned speech from the public gallery complaining that the council was ignoring “the needs of the ill or disabled or their exhausted and impoverished carers” many of whom were struggling to hold down full-time jobs. Their work saved the council millions in care bills. “People with dementia do not like change and are very distressed when they are shuttled around like parcels”. Mr Domleo listened stony-faced.
A biochemist who lives opposite the centre, Dr Geoff Thompson, told the meeting that the work he saw there was very impressive, and asked why council officials had not conducted a full impact survey before recommending closure. “I find it surprising that the agenda talks of improvements in care when it is quite clear this is a major loss of service for people with learning difficulties in Knutsford,” he said.
After the meeting, Peter Womersley was unimpressed with the council’s alternatives. “They are just deluding themselves if they think they can take everyone off to a leisure centre. It’s not just about installing a bit of special equipment there, like lifts and hoists to lift them on to the toilet. It’s about stability and emotional support”. Jean Rees agreed. “It’s no good them saying that at Wilmslow Leisure Centre they can play table tennis; Brian can’t play table tennis. He’ll end up at home all day every day.”
Despite the protests, the council’s cabinet approved the proposal. But it has also offered to consult those suffering from dementia and disability and their carers before finally endorsing the decision in December. “The status quo is not an option. If the Stanley Centre is not suitable is there another building?” Mr Domleo asked. “I hope people in Knutsford will come up with positive ideas”.
The locals were unimpressed. The council held a consultation last time there were cuts and there was a proposal to axe the Stanley Centre minibus. “Cheshire East Council would like to assure people that all concerns raised at our transport consultation events have been noted and we are listening to their views,” Mr Domleo said at the time. Nothing would happen until 2012, campaigners say they were assured. “We had a meeting in the civic hall, parents, users, the head of social services and the rest,” recalled Peter Womersley, “and two weeks later the bus was scrapped, at two days’ notice.”
“When I rang the council to ask what the alternative was,” said Jean Rees, “I was told to put Brian on a train on his own since it was only one stop. If I put Brian on a train he would stay on it all day and never get off. These people have no idea. I rang George Osborne’s office and his secretary said it’s got nothing to do with him and he’s very busy at Westminster. The same thing will happen again. They’ll have a consultation and then do what they were always going to do in the first place.”
Perhaps the MP for Tatton would take more interest now. I rang his office in Knutsford. “Mr Osborne is aware of the situation but is waiting to hear of the council’s decision,” a spokeswoman said. “When he has he will decide whether or not to issue a statement.”
He had better not leave it too long. Revolt is stirring in the Conservative heartlands. At the county council meeting an angry council taxpayer, Graham Goodwin, responded to the closure proposal by asking why local councillors were axing provision for the disabled while paying themselves 55p a mile in mileage when the Government’s recommended figure was just 40p – which cost local ratepayers £1m more than was necessary. Charlotte Peters-Rock has floated in the local paper a campaign for Knutsford to withhold council tax in response to the county’s discrimination against the town. And Jean Rees, who comes from a good Cheshire farming family, is talking about enlisting the local aristocracy in the fight against the Osborne cuts.
“Knutsford has a Rolls Royce showroom and a Bentley showroom and we’ve recently added a McLaren showroom,” fulminated Dr Geoff Thompson. “But it seems we can’t afford basic facilities for disabled people. Something has to change.” Perhaps it will be George Osborne (majority 14,487), one way or another.