Consultation over plans to shut a Kidderminster short breaks sanctuary for disabled children has been labelled “a sham” and “a disgrace” after it emerged that council chiefs hatched plans to axe it more than two years ago.
Now the battle to save the Ludlow Road service could end up in the high court amid claims that Worcestershire County Council has acted improperly in its dealings with the families and campaigners.
Amanda Danby, whose severely disabled son Mason, 16, has attended Ludlow Road for overnight stays and short breaks since he was two, said families felt the closure was a done deal.
“The consultation has been all about discussing alternatives to Ludlow Road. It seems they made up their minds a long time ago.”
Labour campaigner Stephen Brown exposed a trail of letters between the council and Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust, which runs the Ludlow Road premises, through a Freedom of Information request.
He said the Ludlow Road closure plan itself and the subsequent consultation had been a disgrace.
“These letters show it has been the council’s intention all along to close Ludlow Road, which costs around £600,000 a year to run. But they have left it to pretty much the last minute to involve families, despite warnings it should do so.”
Brown, spokesman for Wyre Forest Labour, also condemned the Tory-controlled council’s decision to delay a decision on the proposal until after the May local elections in Wyre Forest, calling it a “cynical ploy” to avoid a backlash if the closure is confirmed.
In a damning critique, he added:
“The Council, in putting its pursuit of austerity and privatisation ahead of everything else, has lost sight of its duty of care to our most vulnerable citizens. It’s a scandal.”
“We’ve seen it in Children’s Services, and now sadly it’s being replicated again here. For them, finding money for repairing pot holes has a higher priority than the most vulnerable or disabled children in its care. That shows you where they’re coming from.”
Brown was backed by the chair of Worcestershire’s children and families’ overview and scrutiny panel, Fran Oborski.
Her panel’s report is due at the end of April, and she indicated it could be scathing.
“The whole process has been mishandled by Worcestershire County Council from beginning to end, putting undue pressure on all of the families affected.
“As things stand, the families will be able to make a very good case if they take this on to the high court.”
The letter trail also highlights a significant rift between the council and Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust – a rift which remains unresolved.
The health trust warned back in February 2016 that the county council’s plans to close Ludlow Road were “very concerning.” It was then part of a proposed service redesign which also affected children’s development centres and the Orchard community service provided for terminally ill and severely disabled children.
“We are very concerned about the way this has been approached and the resultant consequences for children with complex and often life limiting conditions,” said the health trust’s finance chief Robert Mackie in a letter of February 16th.
A year later, in March 2017, the county council wrote to the health trust again reiterating its plans to close Ludlow Road, giving formal notice of its intentions. This screenshot (below) from the letter also indicates the council will go out to tender for alternative private short breaks services if it cannot reach a deal with NHS providers.
In a new letter this week, the health trust’s director of strategy Sue Harris also repeated concerns that the way the consultation and closure plans had been handled had caused confusion and uncertainty.
Most damagingly, she said the health trust is still awaiting information about how the services provided at Ludlow Road will be replaced and funded, or news of any contingency plans for staffing and running the service in the interim period.
She also said the continuing uncertainty was having an impact on other premises which offer services, and the families who use them.
Both Wyrelife and our colleagues at the Kidderminster Shuttle have requested interviews with the county council’s Cabinet member for Children and Famillies, Councillor Andy Roberts.
These requests have been turned down, despite the council’s pledged desire to be open and transparent in its dealings with the public.
In a statement the council said it was currently reviewing responses to the Ludlow Road consultation, which has now closed. “Families are being informed about the next stage of the consultation and we would like to thank all those people who gave us their views. We are liaising closely with Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust, who we fund to provide the service at Ludlow Road, over the proposals.”
THE FAMILIES’ STORIES
The potential loss of the Ludlow Road unit has dismayed and angered some of the 23 families currently using it, particularly as it is the only one in the county catering solely for children with severe physical disabilities. It is specially adapted for their use and does not take children with challenging behaviour to protect the vulnerable users.
Amanda Danby’s son Mason has been a regular visitor to the unit since he was two and a half. After difficulties during birth, Mason developed spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair, has very limited mobility, is blind and suffers from epilepsy.
Said Amanda: “The centre has been a lifeline. We just could not manage without it. Mason goes every Tuesday for an overnight stay, and for one weekend in five. He has grown up using Ludlow Road, and we know we are leaving him in safe hands, with nursing staff to look after all his needs. It gives us a break, it has been a lifesaver.”
Parent Emma Grantham, speaking at a demonstration at Kidderminster Town Hall to save the service in December, said: “To take away Ludlow Road now from my daughter Millie would be devastating. It has taken Millie two years to build up the trust she needed to go and spend time away from home. I know that moving her now would mean she would never cope. Her needs have changed so much in the past 18 months and the girls at Ludlow Road have done everything they could to make life better for her. We need Ludlow Road, our children need Ludlow Road.”
After the demonstration parent Clare Neal added: “Ludlow Road is a lifeline to our family. My son Sam receives 24 hour medical care from qualified staff when he stays. Knowing he is safe enables us to recharge our batteries and continue caring.”
Carol & Kevin Paddock, whose son Joshua goes to Ludlow Road, also spoke out then to say: “We are devastated Worcestershire County Council are even considering the closure of Ludlow Road, which provides essential respite for families with disabled children. Our son has formed strong friendships here and the setting is perfect for the nature of these children.
“The closure of Ludlow Road will have disastrous consequences for us as a family, together with all other current families and future families that will be in need of such a wonderful facility.”
The Ludlow Road facility is a six-bed bungalow in Kidderminster which provides respite and short break care for disabled children aged 3-18. It is managed and staffed by Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust, who were commissioned to run the service by Worcestershire County Council.
The premises were funded by a Public Health Ring Fenced Grant (PHRFG), at an estimated cost of close to £600,000 a year. The government has since withdrawn the PHRFG and, in resulting local negotiations, the burden for ongoing funding of Ludlow Road was to remain with the council.
As part of its austerity budget planning, the council launched a review of all services for children with disabilities last year, including respite care.
That review is ongoing – however, in the meantime it has gone out to consult with affected families over its proposal to redesign short breaks services, including the closure of Ludlow Road.
Families who use the premises would instead be offered a range of alternatives, including at-home respite care (where carers come to the family home rather than the child going into other premises); or places at other premises around the county, including Osborne Court, in Malvern, and Providence Road, Bromsgrove.
The children who receive care at Ludlow Road are legally entitled to respite care for at least three nights a month, plus short breaks, to ensure full time family carers have the support and respite they need.
The consultation process could now be subject to a costly judicial review, particularly in the light of a recent high court ruling.The Nascot Lawn ruling at the high court last month could have implications for Worcestershire and other councils seeking to close services for financial reasons.
Timeline of letter exchanges:
Feb 26, 2016: Worcestershire County Council writes to the NHS care trust to give one year formal notice on Ludlow Road service (and other services including Orchard Services and Child Development Centres.)
March 15, 2016: NHS trust responds, saying: “We are very concerned about the way this has been approached and the resultant consequences for children with complex and often life limiting conditions.” “…you are essentially decommissioning these services (Orchard and Child Development Centres)
March 13, 2017: Formal notice from Worcestershire County Council to the NHS Trust to confirm it plans to close Ludlow Road from March 2018, because of loss of Public Health Ring Fenced Grant (PHRFG) of £540,285.
March 15, 2017: NHS trust reminds council it has to consult on the proposed service changes and lists a series of concerns about the way the changes are being assessed and carried out.
April 13, 2017: NHS trust again reminds council of need for “adequate consultation”.
May 8 2017: The council responds, thanking the health trust for its “timely reminder about consultation”
January 2018: Formal consultation period opens – the full consultation document, which was only actively open to those directly affected, is here
February 19, 2018: In the NHS trust’s official response to the consultation, it states they are “concerned that a proposal which ceases provision at the unit is being considered ahead of the work that needs to be undertaken to assess whether this is a viable option or not.”
The response also refers to the “complex and exceptional needs” of the children, and that it is a nurse-led unit, while the alternative location proposed will include reallocating emergency beds as routine beds, thus reducing flexibility.
It concludes that it is not clear how the needs of the affected disabled children will be met and questions whether the council will meet the terms of the Equality Act, and suggests that a Judicial Review (legal challenge against any decision) is “likely”.
Why does the fate of Ludlow Road rest with the county council and not the county’s health commissioners, Worcestershire Clinical Commissioning Groups?
In a statement, Worcestershire CCGs explained how the services are split:
“The Worcestershire CCGs commission a range of services to meet the health needs of children with disabilities and complex needs, including The Orchard Service (Children’s Community Nursing and Palliative Care Team), Occupational Therapy, Physiotherapy, Speech and Language therapy, Consultant Paediatricians, Dietetic services and Special School Nursing. In addition, the CCGs provide grant funding to Acorns Children’s Hospice for the provision of palliative care, short breaks and care support for those children who meet their criteria. The CCGs also have a duty to assess for and meet continuing health care needs for children with exceptional health needs, in line with a national framework. Where these needs cannot be met from ordinarily commissioned universal and specialist services, an appropriate package of care will be agreed. Further information on the national framework for children’s continuing care can be found here
“Worcestershire County Council has a duty to provide services which are designed to give respite breaks for carers of children with disabilities in order to assist carers to continue to provide care or to do so more effectively. In Worcestershire a range of short breaks are available ranging from community-based provision (including holiday and term-time play-schemes) to specialist services including residential and family-based overnight and weekend care. In addition, according to need, families may be eligible for direct payments which enable them to access a short break in ways that suit the family and young person’s needs and preferences.”