As the next election approaches it is inevitable that Bexley Conservative’s leaflets will include
references to the 40% tax rise introduced by the last Labour administration and the Tory’s
somewhat spurious claim to have frozen council tax but not reduced
front line services. There will be no reference to the myriad of stealth taxes
from the tripling of parking permit charges to the £30 for removing an old sofa
via increased burial and allotment charges and everything in between.
The truth is, Labour’s 40% tax increase provided the cushion that protected Bexley council’s finances from an even bigger black hole than the £40 million the Tories already admit to. Not a penny of that 40% increase they derided so vociferously was ever given back.
Bexley’s Tories accepted the government’s grants in exchange for the freezing of council tax for the past three years; four if you overlook the small rise in 2010, and they hope that will help you forget the unseen costs. Would Barbara Baker have died alone if Bexley council had not cut funding for the wardens that used to be stationed in sheltered accommodation such as hers? Not content with the loss of the personal service wardens provided, they compounded the problem by cutting corners on their poor substitute; the telephone based Bexley Emergency Link Line (BELL) service. Staffing was reduced to unsafe levels.
Within the past few days Bexley council has shunted its failed BELL service across to private provider Medvivo so it’s an appropriate time to review the downward spiral of care services in sheltered accommodation engineered by Bexley council in recent years.
It isn’t so very long ago that people like Barbara lived under the watchful eye of a warden provided with their own flat within the same premises and on 24 hour call. If Mrs. Baker had pulled her cord before Bexley’s cuts began to take their toll the warden could have been by her side within a minute or two, even at one in the morning.
The first round of cuts saw that service reduced to a nine to five operation, although with the warden still living on site, in practical terms that may have been a relatively minor downgrade. The real problems arose in 2006, the year the Conservatives were swept to power in Bexley. Form filling and bureaucracy saw a noticeable increase.
In 2007, London & Quadrant who own the sites, with Bexley council officers direct approval, then tried to close many of them. It made the news nationally and only after a long campaign led by residents, their families, friends and local MPs was the closure averted. However L&Q were not finished. In 2009, again with Bexley council approval, they transferred the warden service to a new provider, Avante, but kept ownership of the sites and the rents. This occurred because L&Q could not make money out of the provision of warden services and it was no surprise when in 2011 Avante gave up the warden service for the same reason. The wardens were in effect starved out of a job with net pay reduced to as little as £100 a month as now they had to pay rent directly on their properties which had until then been part of their employment contracts.
Not surprisingly, live-in wardens became a rarity and Bexley council’s BELL service became the only alternative.
Mrs. Baker’s died after Bexley council failed to answer her emergency call thereby proving the BELL service was no substitute for a warden living at the end of the corridor; but perhaps some lessons have been learned. London & Quadrant, one of the biggest providers of sheltered accommodation in Bexley, is now proposing a “Sheltered Scheme Inspector” who will make…
• A weekly inspection of communal areas.
• A weekly check of the fire alarm and emergency lighting.
• A weekly check of the communal water supply.
• A monthly check of the pull cords in communal areas.
• A quarterly check of call alarms in residents’ flats.
• A six monthly fire drill.
Doesn’t that list look a little too like simple routine maintenance that any responsible housing outfit should be doing anyway? L&Q additionally proposes that an Inspector will undertake to be on call within one working day for emergencies and three days for non-urgent call outs.
Tackling emergencies within 24 hours is a far cry from having a warden on call 24/7 able to respond within a minute or two but it’s what happens when councils cut funding to their providers and then say that the resultant problems - and deaths - are not their fault as sheltered accommodation is operated independently. The same excuse they hand out when care workers find themselves on contracts which do not meet minimum pay requirements.
Even this very small step towards restoring services to an acceptable level cannot be allowed to affect Bexley’s budgetary plans. After a trial period, residents will be required to foot the bill themselves. Public money is far better spent on funding senior salary levels at almost the highest in the country rather than providing adequate care for those who need it most.
With assistance from an L&Q resident.