The county council’s decision to close three respite centres for adults with physical and learning disabilities in Hertfordshire has been upheld.
The three centres – Tewin Road, in Hemel Hempstead, Hixberry Lane, in St Albans, and Apton Road, in Bishop’s Stortford – are now expected to close within six months.
And that will reduce the number of overnight respite places across the county by 14, from 48 to 34.
According to data considered by councillors in advance of the closure decision, the existing eight short break centres in Hertfordshire are underused.
And closing Tewin Road, Hixberry Lane, and Apton Road would save an estimated £970,000 a year.
The decision – taken by a meeting of the cabinet in February – was formally challenged by a group of Liberal Democrat councillors on Wednesday (March 11).
At a special meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee, they questioned the assumptions and data considered by the cabinet.
And they asked for the decision to be sent back to the cabinet for further consideration.
But ultimately the Conservative majority on the committee agreed that they had “no objection to the called-in decision being implemented”.
And that now opens the way for the three centres to be closed within six months, as planned.
Data presented to the cabinet as part of the decision-making process had indicated that occupancy at some of the centres was as low as 44 per cent.
But at the meeting on Wednesday Liberal Democrat Cllr Nigel Quinton said the data was “not as objective as it could have been”.
And he questioned whether the figures took account of periods when some beds had not been available.
He also questioned the selection of centres for closure – pointing to the data that showed occupancy at Tewin Road and Hixbury Lane were already in excess of 80 per cent.
And he said that closing the site in Hemel Hempstead and St Albans would take two centres away from south west of the county.
The consultation responses, he said, highlighted communication issues around availability – and had suggested there were ‘waiting lists’.
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Cllr Ron Tindall suggested the data that had been considered by the cabinet on occupancy was out-dated.
He said it was very short-sighted and potentially dangerous to close the centres before an alternative scheme was developed.
And he said more information was required on the private providers and whether they could take up the slack, created by the closures.
Committee member Cllr Paul Zukowskyj asked whether the council had considered the additional costs if adults were to need full-time care, as a result of the closure of the centres.
And he too suggested there was a need for further analysis of finance and risk.
In response, executive member for adult care and health Conservative Cllr Richard Roberts acknowledged that change was unwelcome.
But he said there was spare capacity in the system – and that it was the right decision.
He said that the county council was currently paying for empty beds – and that it was not the remit of the council to waste money.
He said 25 per cent of all overnight respite breaks were being taken by a small number of users – with some spending between 70 and 200 nights there.
And he said that in a world that was moving towards greater choice, the council’s model of service was “a little bit stale”.
“I think there’s an element here of catching up,” he said.
He said there had never really been waiting lists – although some parents had unofficially contacted centres to see if slots had bee cancelled.
And addressing concerns that the closures could lead to family breakdowns, he said breakdowns could be for a number of reasons
Following the presentations, committee member Cllr Ian Reay, Conservative, said it was clear that all issues had been debated by the cabinet and had been fully analysed by the cabinet panel.
And the majority of the committee backed the decision that had been taken by the cabinet, following earlier consideration by the adult care and health cabinet panel.
Following the meeting, Cllr Roberts said that the committee had made the right decision, with regard to the ‘call-in’.
He pointed to the hour-and-a-half that had been given to the item at cabinet panel, including submissions from a petitioner and from the leader of St Albans Council Cllr Chris White.
And he said the issues around the closures of the centres had been explored in great detail and with great sensitivity.
He stressed that there would be no change in the eligibility for short breaks, as a result of the closures and that as part of the plans there would be investment in the remaining centres.
He said the service was vital to give carers a break from their caring duties. And he said the plans had been carefully thought through and would be sensitively implemented.