Although I’ve been to the centre once before, I’m lost in the maze of this industrial estate. Every unit looks the same, sharp angles and harsh functionality, and my satnav has given up. I think it’s shrugging in helplessness so I turn it off, park up and walk.
After a couple of aimless minutes, a low building down an alley catches my eye and I head towards it, the 60s brick, rusting metal rectangular windows and a couple of portacabins the clues I need. This must be an ex-council building. Inside, the faded paint, slightly stained carpet and chaotic noticeboards are welcoming and familiar. I’ve spent the majority of my working life in places like this and amongst the shabbiness I feel right at home.
Waiting in a room for my meeting to begin, perched precariously on a child’s chair, I’m surrounded by the evidence of the true substance of this place. Great gobs of colour on the children’s paintings, boxes of well-used toys and a timetable packed with activities. The centre is the sole facility for disabled children and their families in the area. There are playgroups, drop-in support for hard pressed parents and a telephone support network, a carers group for foster carers, training in communication skills plus social events at the weekend. A small staff group is supplemented by volunteers, usually people who themselves are parents or carers of a disabled child, who know better than any professional what it is like to care for children yet somehow find the time and energy to share with others.
I’m here to follow up on some contact that I had a year or so ago when I was trying to link the centre with a few other small charities, the idea being that an exchange of expertise and skills could benefit everyone at no financial cost. Frankly it’s not worked as I hoped but I discover that in the meantime the centre has faced other, more pressing problems.
In response to the Spending Review, the local council cut its grant to the voluntary sector across the board by 75%. This has had a devastating effect on the centre’s finances. They are used to existing in a competitive environment – they had to bid for project funding and win tenders rather than receive handouts. The administrator ruefully explained how many hours had gone into to 4 separate small bids, just to fund the playgroup for another year, only to be told at the end of the process that they had been wrongly advised by the council and could have done it in one go. This is life in the voluntary sector, a pain but nobody really minded because that’s the way it is and it kept the centre going. Now, that money is simply not there.
The local councillor is sympathetic and there’s been a march to the Town Hall, but there’s no money. Over the winter they had no central heating because of a dispute about who was supposed to pay the bill. Not their fault. The MP was involved with that one, but with a new winter fast approaching it’s still not been resolved. They opened every day, without fail, because they didn’t want to disappoint the children.
Two staff have left, not to be replaced, and the remaining three are working a 5 day week for four days pay. Last month they nearly didn’t get paid at all and no one is sure what the future holds.
This place provides something that no one else does. It’s an integral element in the lives of local families. A mother pops in to grab some toys and joins in the conversation. She says she is at her wits end already with the reduced service. Her son can’t understand why he’s unable to meet his friends at his club, which has fallen victim to the cuts, and of course she can’t explain. He’s unhappy, his social behaviour has gone backwards and he takes out his frustration at home. She misses her chats with other parents and the chance to grab a few words of expert advice from the staff if she’s really stuck.
In another world, this would be held up as a shining example of what the big society could achieve. Filling in the gaps left by state provision, local, mostly run by volunteers, low costs, self-sufficient, making a little go a long way: it’s the perfect template. Instead, it has fallen victim to the cuts. Far from the big society encouraging creativity and innovation, in reality there has been plenty of that going on for donkey’s years only now to be stifled for want of comparatively tiny sums of money. It’s happening here and in hundreds of similarly valuable, long-established small projects throughout the country who work with vulnerable children and adults that no one else considers or is prepared to invest in.
Understandably they don’t have the time and energy to pursue my project but it’s a good idea, in theory, and they’ll reconsider if and when they have space. As I leave, I’m proudly shown the sensory room for profoundly disabled children and young people. It’s in one of those portacabins. It’s only open 3 days a week now because they are cutting back on electricity and if they can’t repair the leaky roof in time for the bad weather, it must close altogether.