Councillor Maya de Souza has served Highgate Ward since 2006. In the last of our series of posts on what she and fellow councillors Adrian Oliver and Alex Goodman have achieved for Camden, Maya writes about protecting vital community services.
For the Greens, community centres, libraries, adult education, youth centres, services for children and those with poor mental health are critical. They are spaces for interaction that bring people of different generations and backgrounds together. This is what we need in a healthy society, and we value public provision of these services.
We know this is hard in cash constrained times. But what we need is a good distribution of Council funds, that takes into account the real value of these services. We are also for openness and discussion about these services to ensure we find a way to protect those that are needed. We’re concerned about Labour’s approach that suggests that with volunteers and private fundraising services can stay alive.
I’d like to flag up some of the important but sometimes undervalued services that we’ve worked hard to protect.
Protecting the Library – In respect of Highgate Library, the Labour administration in June 2011 decided to reduce library funding by 75%. This was to happen in April 2013. We made this a big issue in the 2011 by-election, pointing out this cut meant the library was at risk of closure. Though we lost the election we won the argument. A working group was set up, a public meeting held, and the cuts postponed to April 2015. A small amount of additional funding has since been promised, but the cuts remain around 65% of the £180k budget for 2010/11.
The future of the library remains precarious, if now a little safer. Labour councillors have given assurances, which Greens have sought in the clearest terms, that if the volunteer approach doesn’t work they will still keep it open for at least 3 days a week. Labour need to be held to this. We have asked for more: proper funding to keep it going, as we take the view that some extra staffing is needed if only to manage this number of volunteers. We don’t want to see jobs being lost either; though a community approach is welcome we need to be realistic as to what is possible!
Protecting our community centres – Both the Holly Lodge and Highgate Newtown Community Centres now have limited funding and greater dependence on fundraising and volunteers. The former has no regular funding, and limited activity. It’s luncheon club for the elderly no longer operates, and though a local church provides a service that’s not quite the same.
The Highgate Newtown Community Centre only has 20% of its funding of 5 years ago. Greens have explored whether the Highgate Newtown Community Centre can survive. The board has made it clear that they don’t think they will be able to close more than 75% of the funding gap, putting the whole centre at risk. This would be a real shame considering also the money and work spent on the centre in the last couple of years. Considering the relatively small sums needed to keep these centres going, we argue that funding can and should be found.
Good services for children – In respect of the Holly Lodge Family Centre, originally built about 50 years ago, we worked with the community and council to get a new building in place as the old one was dilapidated. The Labour councillors prior to the Greens coming in had done nothing to address this. Working with residents we got a council commitment to funding, initially cancelled by incoming Labour administration, but we finally got a further commitment from them to fund this as part of their redevelopment of the estate which would mean more families and greater need.
Just before the by-election in Sept 2011 they seemed to backtrack again. Councillor Leach referred to this as a possibly white elephant in a meeting. Once again we made this an issue in the by- election and obtained a commitment to have it built. Sadly, Councillor Gimson pushed for a modular building on the basis that this would be in use soon, which didn’t happen in the end, so this isn’t as nice as it could be. But a new building is now in place, which is better than nothing. It’s being run by the Queens Crescent Community Centre and we wish them well, but will be pushing for opening the space up for other community uses and working with the community to improve the outdoor spaces, to strengthen the sense of community ownership by the those at Holly Lodge.
We’ve also worked with local residents to understand the need for childcare services in the area and put mothers in touch with HNCC so they can work together to understand need and explore other alternatives. We’re keen on an empowering approach which brings communities and service providers together, so that services are those that are needed and provided in the way the local community wants.
Protecting centres and services for those with mental ill-health – On mental health provision, we have for a long time sought to ensure good services and clear pathways for care in what is a critical area of service, but one which often doesn’t attract the attention it should. The division of responsibilities between the Council, the Camden and Islington Foundation Trust, GPs, MIND and others causes confusion.
I led a cross-party working group looking at issues relating to mental health and women because of the higher rates of mental ill health amongst women in this borough and higher rates of suicide. This group met with service users to understand the issues and needs as well as service provider in the voluntary and state sector.
It made a series of recommendations focusing on those with less serious mental health problems. It stressed the benefits of gender specific crisis and temporary housing and women advisers, which helps ensure a sense if safety. It made recommendations as to the potential to use community centres and activities within them in a preventative capacity as many users just wanted activity with their peers or others.
It also recommended improved training for GPs and better recording of incidents in hospitals so that people got the help they needed as early as possible. In addition, recommendations were made as to clear points of contact and better training of housing and other advisers so they were equipped to deal with people with mental health problems.
In respect of day centres, in the 2006-10 council, I argued against the sale of the Jamestown Day centre. She supported those in the Highgate Centre who wanted sufficient professional staff support. More recently she supported those campaigning to ensure the Highgate Centre retained sufficient space for those with poor mental health, and that there wasn’t too much lost in terms of space and facilities.
There is much more in my view that can be done to improve mental health services, which in my view requires working closely with users and user groups. We need to move away from the distant approach of the Foundation Trust. We also need to try and address the complexity and confusion from the perspective of the user. I’ve tried to contribute to this field, but there is much more to be done here from simple things like clear well publicised pathways and lines of responsibility, to a change in culture and a more open approach to discussing these services which brings these services into centre stage. So many of us will suffer mental ill health problems or have friends and family who will. We all need to be involved in developing good services that really work”.
Services for dementia sufferers – Greens have lobbied hard to protect spaces for various vulnerable groups. These include the Netherwood Centre for dementia sufferers which was threatened with closure and incorporation of services into a single site for people with a range of problems from mental ill health to learning disabilities. We opposed this arguing that with the predicted dementia time bomb, no such centres should be closed. The centre has been protected for the time being.
Physical and learning disabilities – Greens have supported disability groups in terms of accessibility and transport, supporting the use of blue badge holders. We are also keen to ensure a good voluntary service providing advocacy support and other services. DISC that has done this for so many years has folded, but we would like to see this revived. I have also visited the Camden Centre for those with learning disabilities, offering support.
Maya de Souza
Camden, May 2014