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Fighting the corner of Adults with Learning Disabilities

by Anood Al-Samerai on 22 February, 2017

I have never left a council meeting feeling so emotional as I did last night. It made me more determined than ever to be a voice for local residents in a bureaucracy and an administration that thinks it knows best, whatever evidence is presented to them.
There are two day centres in Southwark, run by the Camden Society. The Riverside Day Centre, along Jamaica Road opposite Bermondsey tube station, is for adults with learning disabilities and offers an incredible space for activities from arts and music to training and media. It is literally a lifeline for people with Autism, Downs’ Syndrome and other learning disabilities. The Queens Road Centre also deals with severe complex needs and the Camden Society has worked with the council over many years to ensure that the services offered are what are needed and value for money.

So it was all a bit shocking that the council (which owns the buildings) gave the Camden Society Notice of their leases ending a few weeks ago. There was no conversation with them before the Property Department sent out these letters. Now the council are saying they will work with the Camden Society, but why on earth wouldn’t they have done so before telling them their buildings would close? And how can people have any faith that it is a genuine conversation now when it seems as if the council has already decided?

And it’s not just me being cynical that the council has already decided. Labour’s budget, due to be voted on this evening, and prepared many weeks ago says (in line 401 of Appendix F) says it will save £537,000 through ‘Consolidation of day services into a single day centre…’
This decision to merge day centre services has been made without a single piece of consultation whatsoever. I can’t believe that any Labour Councillor thinks that is an acceptable way to treat the most vulnerable residents of this borough. If they do, they should be ashamed.

And the final piece of the jigsaw is that the Riverside Day Centre seems to have suddenly and strangely appeared in the council’s Planning Documents as a ‘development site’. I’ve now found council documents from October and November 2016 putting the site on a list for developers. Long before any discussion or consultation with the people whose lives literally depend on that centre. Severely disabled people shipped out, money making development shipped in! A ‘sell out’ in the most horribly tragic definition of the phrase. And Labour still has the gall to say they haven’t made decisions and the closure of the centres is not the council’s responsibility. I have never felt quite so disgusted with Southwark Council’s political leadership as I do right now.

The Labour Cabinet Member claimed that he couldn’t possibly make it 10 minutes down the road for last night’s meeting so adults with learning disabilities and their families were made to come to the formal council offices. The stories we heard were distressing, but also inspiring, because they so clearly articulated the difference these day centres had made to people’s lives.

One lady told us about her 41 year old daughter, who has Downs and whose OCD means that routine is simply the most important thing for her. Two years ago her daughter had no life, she didn’t talk or mix, and yet the Riverside Centre has treated her as a human being and transformed her by enabling her to communicate for the first time in her life. Another lady told us about her 22 year old son, who cannot speak or wash himself and spent four months self-harming after a change in his transport routine. Another service user stops eating, smashes windows and messes himself if he has to cope with change or restrictions.

Parents and carers were clearly exhausted and worn down by having to fight for the most basic services for their loved ones. They desperately need support from the council, not spin and hiding behind tales of leases and budgets. Above all, the council needs to understand that Adults with Learning Disabilities are human beings, not names on paper to be sent around across the borough into arrangements which are more convenient for the council.

These people who are being told there is no decision to close their centre. Yet Notices have been sent and line 401 of the budget ‘consolidates into a single day centre’. And to add insult to injury, line 404 of the budget cuts £375,000 from transport for the disabled, meaning they can’t even get to a single centre which no-one has ever bothered to ask them about.

The Liberal Democrat budget puts forwards a number of good ideas tonight for Labour to do instead. Other ways to save money from cutting Councillor payments to increasing flytipping fines and making developers pay more. Even if they don’t like these ideas, we have to work together, Councillors from all parties, to find a way to keep these two day centres open.

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