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Don’t be old, don’t be ill: one year of council cuts

Kate Belgrave surveys a year of council cuts that have often hit society's most vulnerable

Year One of council cuts is drawing to an end. Across the country, whole social care teams have been lost, daycentres and hostels shut, youth services closed, libraries shut and vulnerable people excluded from care services. Thousands of staff have lost jobs. Here's a view from the wasteland:

I meet Susan Gates [name changed], a furious Camden mental-health service user, at a packed and dismal public council “consultation” meeting in early October. I've been to a great many meetings and protests like this in the last year. This one's in Kentish Town library.

Like many in the room, Susan is here to register her upset at Camden council plans to close and sell support centres for people with mental health difficulties, dementia, learning disabilities and sensory disabilities.

The council wants to use cash generated from sales to build a single building on a self-funding, mixed-use site (there'll be private flats and business space for rent and sale) at Greenwood Place in Kentish Town.

The council has billed this meeting as a happy, two-way dialogue between itself and constituents, but you can forget that. Animosity reigns.

Audience members like Susan are convinced that the council has already decided to close and sell their centres, even though councillors deny it. “We haven't made any decisions!” council cabinet member for adult social care Pat Callaghan responds – a statement somewhat negated by the thick, glossy brochure that councillors circulate to promote their plans.

Susan is a long-time (about 14 years) user of Highgate – one of the threatened centres. It's a small, staffed service which offers groups and social support for people with mental health difficulties. Susan suffers from severe depression. She is hospitalised during bad episodes. For her, Highgate is familiar, unthreatening and essential. “I couldn't cope without it.”

That may well be too bad. In response to central government cuts, Camden says it must sell assets to offset a £403m capital budget gap and to protect frontline services from £83m in savings in three years. The problem is that Greenwood Place is a community facility idea that service users hate.

“It will be a dumping-ground for derelicts,” one Highgate user says. “We'll be stuck on the side behind some industrial estate.”

“This is the second meeting I've been to,” Susan says, exasperated. “They know we don't want them to close [the centres]. What do they want us to say?”

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What many councils want people to say, of course, is nothing. They want silence as markets make their final assaults on public services – and they respond ferociously to people who threaten that agenda.

In April this year, I published this piece in the Guardian about Hammersmith and Fulham council's plan to close and sell the Tamworth mental health high-support hostel in Fulham.

I caught the council out in a lie in that story. The council claimed that the closure was justified because the service was not much used, but I found a Supporting People draft strategy which said something very different – that mental health accommodation services in the borough were oversubscribed. One resident I interviewed – an older woman who suffered from schizophrenia and alcoholism – didn't want to leave Tamworth, because she had nowhere else to go (the council had closed another staffed hostel in the borough a year earlier).

She was concerned that she'd be placed in a B&B where she'd be robbed and abused as a matter of course. She had every reason to think that might happen – she'd been robbed and abused in low-support accommodation in the past. Her life was made just bearable in staffed hostels like Tamworth. The staff at Tamworth made sure she had her meds and money. They looked out for her if she went missing on binges. They cared.

The council responded to my report with venom. Furious senior managers decided to discipline the staff they thought had talked to me. Those staff endured a dreadful six months as they were dragged in and out of disciplinary hearings. If they were sacked, they would never find jobs in social care again. They weren't sacked – the council did not know who my sources were and never will – but they were disciplined. Their futures remain unsure.

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Everywhere, there's fear. For the few stories you'll hear about council cuts, there are thousands you won't.

I've had emails and calls from council staff in Bournemouth and Dorset who want to go public with concerns about cuts, but are frightened they'll be sacked if they do.

Service users also worry that complaining about cuts will nettle the wrong people. Parents of children with disabilities in Lancashire, for example, were happy to speak off-the-record for stories I wrote this year about cuts to short-break units for disabled children, but did not want to be named. Lancashire county council leader Geoff Driver had started to accuse campaigners of politicking (he repeated that accusation to me in a phone interview) and people were worried about losing sympathy, and even services, if they made too much noise.

One elderly Lancashire parent of a severely disabled adult man uses a pseudonym in interviews because he's concerned about drawing lightning. His son, who is now nearly 30, has cerebral palsy and needs round-the-clock care. He can’t move, or speak. He is fed through a stoma and tube.

His care is organised through Lancashire council and the NHS. But adult social care at Lancashire is harder than ever to come by. This year, Lancashire tightened eligibility criteria for adult care. Only service users in the “substantial” or “critical” fair access to care bands are eligible for paid-for care now. People with “moderate” needs have to finance care themselves. The council is reassessing nearly 4000 people to decide which category they belong in. In September, council officers told me that the council had reviewed just 100 cases since July.

Everyone else waits in fear. The man with the pseudonym has been waiting for his son's review – and to find out what services he can negotiate – for a year. He describes the council's snail's pace as “cuts by default. [The council] has learned not to just shut things. That gets bad publicity. Now, it is letting everything run down without actually closing anything.”

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And then there are cuts by privatisation – the other route councils race down to put daylight between themselves and austerity's truths. This is one of the oldest tricks in a sector of old tricks: private companies take over council services, then do the cutting. Once outsourced, council staff salaries are slashed and working hours extended as private companies redirect funds to shareholders and senior managers.

Barnet Unison branch secretary John Burgess describes this as “outsourcing cuts”. He'd know. Burgess and his members are at war with Barnet council over council plans to mass-outsource council services. Council services all over are threatened by private companies, but Barnet's is probably the most radical proposal around.

Already, Barnet has set aside £750m for private delivery of services like finance and procurement. Unison estimates job losses of up to 250 in already-stretched services if that change goes ahead. Clouds gather over other departments – that is, nearly all of them. Earlier this year, Unison reported that 24 out of 25 council services had been told they were to be privatised – though many doubt Barnet council's ability to manage relationships with private companies at all.

The Barnet scene is bloody mayhem and ought to serve as an appalling warning. Most of the councils I've seen this year ought to serve as appalling warnings. But they do not and they will not. Those living the slaughter – the mentally ill, the disabled, the elderly, the sick, the jobless – are beneath notice. They've been left for dead, to keep banking alive.

Kate Belgrave blogs on the experience of public service users facing cuts.

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