Am Bratach No. 222
If you listen to leading politicians, hungry for re-election, government assaults on front-line services are a no-go area, but in Lochinver people learned differently at a packed public meeting held on March 18 to discuss the future of the village's Highland Council community care unit, The Assynt Centre.
It transpired that when the local authority finally "abandons" the centre, most likely in the second half of this year, residents of the parish of Assynt could be left with only a skeleton service, and then only if volunteers can muster sufficient commitment, time, energy and cash to run the operation.
According to Kate Stephen, who has been working closely with local voluntary group, Community Care Assynt, in anticipation of such a turn of events, Highland Council is likely to offer Community Care Assynt 85,000 pounds sterling per annum to run the centre on a three or five-year contract or "service-level agreement". The present budget is around 250,000 pounds sterling a year. Job losses seem inevitable.
Ms Stephen is employed by the UHI Millennium Institute as a project manager at their Centre for Rural Health with a remit to develop "community-based" services and social enterprises for older people in the Highland Council area. She says that, working on an 85,000 pounds sterling "bare-bones" budget, overnight and day-care services would disappear, leaving only the lunch club and the minibus service. In addition, the building would be kept open for, say, six hours a day for four days a week, so that people could meet, host evening classes or undertake other activities that met a local need. A key change is that the centre wouldn't just be for older people, but for any adult in need.
The remaining services would also be affected, to some extent. At present, the lunch club is a registered residential day-care service and the menu is highly regulated. This translates into a varied menu and, of necessity, a certain amount of waste. "Now, I think it will follow more what the Bradbury Centre in Bonar Bridge does," says Kate Stephen. "It has a set menu and it's available for people to see a week in advance. If people don't like mince, say, then they can request an alternative and it can be provided. It means the right amount of food is purchased [so there's less waste]." The minibus would be available for use by the wider community, and not confined to users of the centre, as at present.
"If we can reduce electricity costs, that will help to keep the building open," she points out. Overheads, including electricity costs, are enormous. The rent, paid to the owners of the building, the Trust Housing Association, is a formidable 25,000 a year, and does not include heating. "The fuel - oil, electricity and gas - was over 20,000 last year," says Ms Stephen, although "Assynt Renewables have very kindly done a review of the building and there's lots of ideas already of how to reduce costs." To assist new operators, the council would pay fuel costs for the first year.
"The community really want to buy the building so that they don't have to worry about the rent in the future," says Ms Stephen. Local representatives hope to meet the housing association soon.
For all the doom and gloom surrounding Highland Council's decision to end direct involvement in running the centre, there is scope to acquire match funding to boost their modest offer of 85,000.
"I've got a rake of potential funding opportunities," enthuses Ms Stephen. "LEADER's the first port of call, because I think it's developing a new initiative in the area that will, hopefully, be good for the whole community.
"The 85,000 pounds sterling can do the core service. There's loads of funders who like this kind of thing - it's just about being creative and [carrying out] the laborious filling out of application forms. There are lots of skills in that area and people who have been doing this for years."
Maybe so, but with no residential care in the offing, and the need for long-term, institutionalised care continuing to exist, a serious problem remains unsolved - unsolved since Centre for Rural Health research of a year ago revealed that "the people of Lochinver are all agreed that they want to end their days in their own community" and there are no solutions to this conundrum on the near-horizon.
The challenge has not been overlooked by Community Care Assynt, and, significantly, it has been decided that no structural changes will be allowed to the building so as to ensure existing bedrooms may still be used as bedrooms in the future.
David Slator, chairman of Community Care Assynt and a practising GP, is optimistic. He said: "In years two and three of this community project we hope to work with Highland Council so that there is a transfer of care funding from the council to Community Care Assynt.
"This will allow a local organisation to take over the running and provision of care to people with needs in the community. We feel that as this will be locally based it will be more flexible and responsive to local needs with less bureaucracy."