A councillor has defended the Freefield Centre, claiming the loss of its affordable lunch club would be “a disservice” to past councillors instrumental in setting it up.
Billy Fox insisted the potential £80,000 annual saving made by closing Freefield would easily be gleaned from cuts elsewhere in the council instead.
At today’s meeting of the SIC’s social services committee he questioned whether the council was behaving as it should by hanging the centre’s future in the balance.
Mr Fox argued that closing Freefield would result in elderly people who regularly use the centre for its six-days-a-week lunch club having their needs assessed. They may, ultimately, end up relying on meals on wheels, he said.
His comments came as members considered information on a review, which the SIC ordered after stopping short of closing the service in February. Over 1,500 people have signed a petition calling for its retention.
A report before members pointed to the voluntary sector as a valid option to take forward the service.
In an impassioned plea Mr Fox said: “I question whether this £80,000 saving is achievable. I went to the centre last week and there were 43 folk using it. They don’t all have assessed needs.
“If you take that away, and the social interaction, a lot of these people are living alone. We’re going to have these people moving towards assessed needs like meals and wheels.”
Mr Fox dismissed as “entirely spurious” an argument by political leader Gary Robinson that offering the service in Lerwick alone was unfair to potential users in rural areas. He said “a race to the bottom” in terms of equity was wrong.
Mr Fox said: “Are we doing what we are supposed to be doing as a council? As a local authority? This saving doesn’t have to come from social services. This saving can come from elsewhere.”
He pointed to the opening of the centre in 1977 by the chairman of social work Eric Gray and the late Jimmy Paton.
“We are doing councillors who have gone before us a real disservice. Let’s look at doing this differently.”
During the meeting chairman Cecil Smith insisted the committee was seeking viable ways to continue Freefield rather than close it down, even though Allan Wishart highlighted an objective within a supporting document which pointed to considering closure.
Council officials have been meeting people who use the lunch club to discuss how the service might change.
Councillors heard there was an overall support for the Freefield location because of its close proximity to Laing’s the chemist, other shops, a post box, post office and pedestrian crossing.
Among the comments gathered during consultation dismisses other possible locations such as Islesburgh, as access for older people was described as being poor. The Baptist Church at Quoys has also been dismissed by some because of its location.
One suggestion put forward was hiring out the basement for storage which could generate extra income.
Someone else said: “Don’t replace the chief executive and use the money from his post to help keep Freefield open.”
Councillors will learn more about the review in a further report which will come before the committee by Christmas.