‘Wellness Centre’ to Worsen Financial Starvation?
Excited talk of a £60 million ‘Wellness Cente’ for somewhere on the outskirts of Llanelli suggests that another white elephant could be about to take up residence in Carmarthenshire.
Surely THE RETENTION OF OUR REMAINING PUBLIC SERVICES would be far more cost-effective than an expensive new building?
The Wales Audit Office expresses similar concerns in a new report, ‘Supporting the Independence of Older People: Are Councils Doing Enough?’, released on October 15th.
The report says that cuts to those public services which help people to live independent lives “may prove to be a false economy for the taxpayer as cuts to preventative services can often result in more demand for more costly acute health and social services in the medium term”. (p.11)
According to the Audit Office, “Seven of 10 services rated as most important by older people and four of the top five services that support them to live independently, have been reduced – community halls (41 per cent), public toilets (26.8 per cent), libraries (18.7 per cent) and public transport (5.7 per cent).
“Whilst we acknowledge the challenge councils face in having to reduce expenditure to balance budgets, the effect of these cuts is going to impact adversely on older people.” (p.11)
And that is likely to lead to greater demand for expensive personal care as older people, denied easy access to transport, toilets and social activities, become more isolated and less independent.
“There is a risk,” says the Audit Office (p.59) “that council are changing services without fully assessing the potential impact on older people which undermines their ability to fully meet the Public Sector Equality Duty.”
This duty, explained in the Equality Act 2010, is to ensure absence of discrimination on the basis of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity.
The important services which “most councils” fail to evaluate adequately, according to the Audit Office (p.20), include toilets, libraries, halls, specialist housing, housing adaptations, warden-assisted housing, alarm services, and practical help with things like shopping, cooking and gardening.
Given the importance of easily accessible local services to help keep older people independent, and councils’ records of closing those services, there is a strong case for avoiding swanky new buildings – even ‘Wellness Centres’ – and concentrating on keeping bus routes and public toilets open, and on providing enough practical help so that older people can live as they want to live.
The Wales Audit Office found in a survey carried out between October 2014 and March 2015 that 56% of people said public toilets are very important, and another 30% said they are important. The figures for libraries were almost as high – 54% voting them very important and 29% important.
How many would say the same about a ‘Wellness Centre’?
Unfortunately, it’s not a simple case of either / or, because keeping services going requires revenue funding, which the UK government keeps cutting, and new buildings need capital funding, which is still obtainable through grants and loans. So it is easier to build a ‘Wellness Centre’ than to keep public toilets open – or to keep the Wellness Centre open in 10, 15 years’ time!
And that is a perplexing problem, a problem the Audit Office cannot solve, not on its own at any rate.