Norwich day centres could be opened up to wider community

Day centres for people with learning difficulties in Norwich could be run as John Lewis style co-operatives and opened up to local communities as part of plans to overhaul the service while also capping the costs of rising demand.

Norfolk County Council currently spends around �10m a year running nine day centres across the county, including one at Ipswich Road, Tuckswood, and another at Aslake Close in Sprowston.

But with most of the buildings in need for refurbishment and County Hall looking to stem costs amid rising numbers of youngsters with learning difficulties about to reach adulthood, the authority has produced a blueprint looking at a new model for how services can be delivered.

Currently 636 people aged 18 to 80 receive services from day centres, of those 202 live in residential homes, 166 are in supported living accommodation, and 252 live at home with unpaid carers.

Under the plans, which have been fleshed out following a consultation with around 20pc of existing users, the centres will be replaced by new 'community hubs' which will either operate from the existing buildings or be provided elsewhere. The authority also wants to see if community groups want to step in and either use the venue or even take them over.

In addition, two other strands to the strategy will see existing day centre staff transferred to work either as part of a 'personal assistants agency' of specialists who can help people remain independent and take part in activities with them, and 'development workers' who would offer advice and support to people and their families on issues such as pooling their personal budgets to form groups based on friendships, interests or hobbies.

The model is part of a strategy which will see the council become a commissioning body for learning difficulties services within three years, but it is still not clear whether that means the service will be privatised or run as a not-for-profit 'social enterprise'. Some also fear that the proposals to open up the centres to the wider community are an excuse to cut costs and run them on the cheap by placing the burden on families.

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David Harwood, the council's cabinet member for adult and community services, said the aim was to create a more flexible service to give individuals and their families more control over how they live their lives.

'Increasingly, people with learning disabilities are choosing to take up new and more varied activities in the wider community,' Mr Harwood said. 'We also understand that alongside these new opportunities, there will always be a need for specialist facilities in safe and secure buildings, particularly to meet personal care needs and provide complex care support.

'The things that people value about their day services now will still be available, we are just proposing to change the way they are arranged. This means that people can still have a safe, secure base and take part in group activities with friends if this is what they choose.'

James Bullion, assistant director of community services, said people would still be able to access day centres, but these would also be opened up for the wider community.

'If you take the one at Ipswich Road, that's a good example of where there aren't many resources and rooms in the area for the community,' he said. 'The idea is we would say to a local community, particularly older people's groups, or children's groups, whether they could make better use of the facilities. 'We would make this very much a 'Big Society' proposal in that we think the community could have a lot of uses for the centre and could raise money to run them. We also think staff might like more independence from the local authority in the way they run services and one thing we would like to explore is the 'John Lewis' style option of our staff themselves running the agency as some sort of social enterprise, but we haven't made that decision yet.'

The plans will be considered by members of the council's adult and community services overview and scrutiny panelnext Tuesday ahead of cabinet approval and a 12-week public consultation.

But Labour county councillor George Nobbs said: 'The big question is who is going to run this? We know the council is going to save money, but these sorts of specialist services to vulnerable people are not the sort of things you can simply outsource without being very careful about how you do it and they are not the sort of services the county council can give away and run on the cheap.'

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