'Controversial' plan to close mental health centres in North Devon

North Devon Gazette

A ‘controversial’ shake-up of mental health services in North Devon is being considered, which could lead to the closure of four-day centres.Â

The ‘link centres’ provide day services and drop-in sessions for around 270 people, mostly aged between 41 to 65, in Barnstaple, Bideford, Holsworthy and Ilfracombe.Â

Devon County Council is launching a consultation on plans to shut the centres and use the £480,000 a year spent on them to provide more services in the community instead.Â

The link service began in North Devon in 1992 but its centres have been closed since the start of the pandemic, with people receiving help in other ways including online and by telephone. Short-term support has also been provided by mental health social workers.Â

Councillor James McInnes (Conservative, Hatherleigh & Chagford), cabinet member for adult social care and health services, introduced the plan to the council’s health and adult care scrutiny committee. He admitted it was a ‘controversial proposal’ and that he was ‘stirring a hornet’s nest’, but stressed it was not about saving money.Â

“We think it’s appropriate after a service that’s been in place for so long and hasn’t had anybody actually had a good look at it, that we actually look at how we can deliver this service going forward – and I know that it has raised a lot of questions and a lot of anxiety.”Â

Councillor McInnes said the council had undertaken initial engagement with service users and professionals, with a full consultation stage beginning on Thursday, September 23.Â

Tim Golby, locality director (north and east) for Devon County Council, said: “There’s quite a lot of concern and passion about the proposals, but we really do want to get into a conversation around whether something could be better.Â

“There’s no intention at all to make things worse, but it is to make it better and there’s no strategy here to reduce costs either – the discussion is around can we do something that is very different but better for the population of northern Devon.”Â

However, some councillors are concerned about potential closures of buildings and changes to the service.Â

Councillor Paul Crabb (Conservative, Ilfracombe) said a professional involved in the current service is ‘aghast’ at the proposals, with another ‘in despair’ that they’re no longer allowed to prescribe people to the service. He claimed the only way someone can join the service currently is through a specialist mental health social worker.Â

“Every participant I’ve spoken to talks about the usefulness of this service,” cllr Crabb said, adding the proposed plan ‘may well be a step too far’.Â

“I know that we don’t know what the [specific] proposals are yet, but every single document you read refers to getting away from the buildings-based service. Every person I speak to assures me that the fact that you have got a building as a focus is the essential part of the service.”Â

Councillor Paul Henderson (Conservative, Chulmleigh & Landkey) said those involved in the proposal and consultation needed to look at why the current service is unique to North Devon and whether that was still applicable today, while he also warned that moving some of the services online may be difficult in rural areas with poor internet.Â

“You’ve got four … very cut-off communities across North Devon. Those buildings that people use at the moment – it’s not a question about getting people to live as independently as possible….it is also down to their social welfare,” councillor Henderson added.Â

“My guess, and it is only a guess, is that those centres may be the only social interaction some of the users actually get.”Â

Councillor Sarah Parker-Khan (Conservative, Ashburton & Buckfastleigh) said while she recognised that people get ‘attached sentimentally to buildings’ she added: “For me, it’s really about the services that are going to be provided…. and whether there will still be face-to-face interaction.”Â

Councillor Richard Scott (Conservative, Exmouth) said it was important that no cut to the service was being proposed and that members needed to be ‘open-minded’ about how it should operate in future, while still being understanding of the sensitivity of the issue.Â

Members of the committee noted the report, which will be put to a consultation on Thursday, September 23, lasting around 30 days. The council will then consider the feedback before deciding what changes are made.