Another Isabel Blackman Centre Shuts Its Doors.By Emma Harwood

A decision to close the Isabel Blackman Centre in St Leonards, which has provided a range of vital services for many elderly and vulnerable people, has been met with shock and dismay by its staff, volunteers and members.

PICTURE: Colin Gibson

The building is owned by the Royal Voluntary Service which says the closure is due to necessary repairs following the results of a building survey received in February. 

But staff and volunteers at the centre in South Street which opened its doors to up to 200 people a week were only told on 2nd May that it would be closing that very same day for a minimum of six weeks.

RVS – a charity whose website states that its volunteers ‘provide much needed support for over-stretched public services and for people as they age’ – says it cannot afford to fund either the repair work, estimated at £67,000, or annual running costs of £33,000, but is ‘committed to finding alternative models of service provision within the local community.’ 

However, the Royal Voluntary Service has yet to clarify whether it would be happy to ensure the building’s continued use as a community centre.

At the centre – one of the few local venues which has disabled access and whose facilities include hall, meeting room and kitchen – the RVS has been operating a rota of 15 volunteers and employing two members of staff who now face redundancy. It was providing up to 70 hot meals a week for members, while outsourcing a number of other services.

Janet Porte, a dementia sufferer who had lunch at the centre every day, told HIP she couldn’t put into words her feelings about the closure. “Basically your life’s taken away from you, it’s not much fun. You get to know people in a place like this, it’s a good place.”

A range of community groups also hired the space, including two churches, the charity Band of Brothers which supports ex-prisoners, the Labour Party, the Chinese Association and The Hive, a women’s weekly well-being group.

Service Manager Jon Dunham said that following news of the immediate closure he had to cancel all future bookings and tell the many elderly members who relied on it every day that they could no longer access it.

Members left isolated 
Volunteer Steven Fuller, who has worked at the centre for seven years, said it encouraged people to socialise: “As a large number of people come in here on a weekly basis, it’s going have a big overall drop in their well-being, especially their mental well-being, because they’re used to coming here as part of their routine. Some have been coming here for years. It’s a part of the week that they look forward to, I think.” 

At a meeting with RVS, volunteers and service providers on Wednesday 8th May, various concerns were raised about the closure, especially since a ten million pound reduction to its adult social care budget for 2018/2019 has forced cash-strapped East Sussex County Council to drastically cut other services for older people.

An RVS spokesperson said: “Like many charities, we are currently operating in a very challenging environment with fewer resources and increasing demand and, as a result, we can’t fund the repairs and ongoing costs of the Centre ourselves. The well-being of older people in Hastings is important to us, and we recognise the activities and services that take place at the Centre are wanted and needed by the community.”

“We cannot let this happen”
The news comes less than two months after East Sussex County Council closed the other Isabel Blackman Centre in Hastings Old Town, affecting around 70 older people with mobility and other health issues who relied on its services as a means of support and social interaction.

The building in Winding Street is owned by ESCC and currently believed to be under offer from a solicitor as office space, but was registered on 17th April as an Asset of Community Value by Hastings Old Town Residents Association (HOTRA). 

This triggers a six-month period to delay the sale or lease of the building to allow the community to raise sufficient funds to match the offer or to acquire the building.

Chair of HOTRA, Dick Edwards, said he was confident the building could be made viable, and is preparing to launch a fund-raising  appeal.

He said the first target was to get the centre re-opened for three days a week and to provide a friendship club with dedicated transport for its former members, many of whom have mobility problems or suffer from dementia. 

“The big anxiety is that many of these individuals who relied on the centre are isolated in their homes, not many of them have family living nearby, and the only time they go out is to go to the Isabel Blackman Centre.”

“It’s a modest ambition and we’re fairly certain we can do it. We know for some of them that they are truly crying constantly. That’s just not acceptable. We cannot let that happen,” said Mr Edwards.

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