Guest blog by Anon.
During the Kenton by-election in February 2011, Muhammed Butt rang my doorbell and asked me if I was going to vote for the Labour candidate. I responded by saying I wasn't sure, that it was unlikely, and he asked why. I said was very disappointed with the Council, particularly the Labour group, who appeared to be supporting severe cuts to frontline services, which, in my opinion, would affect the most vulnerable in our community.
Mo asked me for an example and I told him that I heard the Council were proposing to close 24 Crawford Avenue (a large 6 bedroom house that had a 1/3rd of an acre of play space and is situated in the heart of Wembley). Incidentally, the house was bequeathed to Barnardos specifically for the use of children in need. It was leased to Brent Council for decades at a reasonable annual rent.
The Council leased the property for decades from Barnardos without any major issues. The unit was registered to provide overnight short breaks for up to 6 children, in addition to providing valuable day care during the school holidays and at weekends for another 6 children. It also accepted lockouts and emergency child protection cases. Those who benefited from the service were children aged between 5-18 years, who although mobile, suffered from moderate to severe disabilities, including learning difficulties and some with challenging behaviours. In addition to giving children greater opportunities to develop and socialise and through play it also gave families much needed short breaks.
However, whilst standing in my doorway, touting for my vote, Mo Butt responded absentmindedly. He said, "Oh yes, Crawford Avenue is going to close. Ironically, this was before any official community consultations had begun. When I raised further concerns about how disappointed I was, he proudly informed me that he was the Deputy Leader of the Council and that I should put my concerns in writing to him.
Months later, the so-called public consultations eventually began and many people put their concerns in writing. Service users took a legal challenge to the high court. The Council continued to argue that they knew best. That they were building a 'state of the art' unit, which eventually became known as the Ade Adepitan Centre, situated adjacent to the new Villlage School in Grove Park. Whilst the new build was being built, the Council officially closed Crawford Avenue and merged it with Clement Close, a very small respite unit for children of families who had Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD) and other disabilities, designed for wheelchair users.
This effectively meant that the service provision was more than halved for both groups of children, as it wasn't safe for the young people to be booked in together. In addition to this, despite some basic refurbishment, the building was not fit for purpose and many families from Crawford declined to send their children to Clement. Crawford Avenue was eventually closed in January 2012. Interestingly, months later, a pre-change of use planning application was submitted by someone, who recognised the enormous potential of this property. This was in December 2012. For further details on this matter see LINK
Sadly, Crawford Avenue (a potential jewel in the crown of Wembley) was eventually sold by Barnardos for about £875,000 and the buyer succeeded in their application to the Council for cessation in lease for the continued use of building as a children's home.
Meantime, much community unhappiness developed at Clement Close as staff and service users tried to adapt to many changes in a building that was not fit for purpose. It also appeared that more serious incidents occurred, including assaults on staff by children and in September 2012 an unhappy vulnerable child absconded.
Such incidents are of concern when you hear councillors and managers say that, 'The impact on the child must be our primary concern'. From January 2012 to February 2013 staff, children and families endured many changes. In March 2013 Neil Macdonald (Interim Head of Service Children’s Commissioning) delivered reported to the Council on short breaks provision for Children with Disabilities. He confirmed that new Village short breaks centre was now open and had received its first children for respite care on 8 February 2013.
He said, "The centre was registered to provide short breaks for up to 8 children, double the capacity of Clement Close. The council was currently exploring how best to use this additional capacity" because of the low occupancy. Something, I understand, they still struggle with, possibly due to the institutional feel and poor design that cannot always accommodate the two different client groups safely.
As for day care and after school care, I understand this has yet to be provided, despite misleading reports from Mr MacDonald to the Executive Committee.
Further, Sara Williams (Acting Director of Children & Families) and her team, also reported to the Executive Committee in November 2013, less than a year after the closure of Crawford Avenue, that, 'The lack of appropriate children's residential care homes also hampers the council in its duty to take reasonable practicable steps to secure sufficient accommodation for looked after children where it's their best interest to be accommodated locally.
It really does beggar belief that our leaders can be so short sighted. Where will the cuts end and what impact will they really have on our community in years to come?