Link centre consultation 'absolute nonsense' say campaigners

Campaigners protest against the proposed closure of the Link Centres in Bideford, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe

Campaigners protest against the proposed closure of the Link Centres in Bideford, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe - Credit: Linda Hellyer

Campaigners are calling for more time for a consultation about the potential closure of mental health centres in North Devon, claiming the council has rushed it through. 

Devon County Council (DCC) is considering closing mental health support drop-in centres in Bideford, Holsworthy, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe. The ‘link centres’ provide day services and drop-in sessions for around 270 people receiving mental health support. 

Campaigners say the council’s four-week consultation period is ‘woefully short’, providing far too little time for service-users to respond. The argue many people affected don’t have access to the right IT equipment and need more time and support so they can give their opinion. 

Councillors in favour of changing the service say closing the buildings would save £480,000 which could be invested into a more flexible community service.  

The link service began in North Devon in 1992 but its centres have been closed since the start of the pandemic, with people receiving some help in other ways including online and by telephone. 

Sue Matthews, a former mental health nurse and campaigner with Save Our Hospital Services Devon (SOHS) said: “The recent service-user engagement and professionals engagement has been woefully short for a service that’s been identified by both service-users, the service staff and healthcare professionals as being vital to the community.”  

The council held a preliminary engagement phase from August 16 to September 13. Ms Matthews believes this initial process was also inadequate. She said: “Very few of the service-users who have made contact with us have any knowledge of that at all.” 

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She added that many needed the help of link centres to reply – and couldn’t do so because centres were closed because of covid restrictions.  

In response to criticisms of the four-week virtual consultation, Solveig Wright, deputy head of service for adult commissioning and health at Devon County Council, said: “Although we were unable to hold public face-to-face meetings we have still carried out a full engagement and consultation process, following expert legal advice.  

“In light of this advice, and the level and quality of feedback received (including some considered alternatives), we will not be looking to extend the consultation period.” 

Ms Matthews criticised this response: “We absolutely understand the importance of the safety of staff and of service-users, but the fact is that cinemas, pubs, cafes, restaurants are all open, all with social distancing rules if they know what they’re doing.  

"The same thing could happen with the link centres, too, certainly for a proper engagement and consultation period over such a vital service."

Ms Matthews added: “If you’re not going to have face-to-face meetings, surely it makes sense to extend the consultation period to allow people to respond in any way they possibly can. 

“To introduce a four-week public consultation, with such limited opportunity for people to meet and respond is an absolute nonsense.” 

A service-user and stakeholder consultation started on Thursday, September 23, and concludes on Friday, October 22. The initial engagement phase ran from August 16 to September 13.

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