The Freefield Centre is set to be saved and improved by the voluntary sector to provide a wider range of services in Lerwick for the elderly at no cost to the council.
Councillors agreed today to sanction more detailed talks with organisations which have come forward to take over the closure-threatened building, including the British Red Cross, WRVS, Voluntary Action Shetland, the social enterprise company COPE and the New Life Church.
The council provoked outrage in February when it tried to close down the old folk’s luncheon club in the former British Legion building to save £80,000 a year, asserting that the service was not provided anywhere else in Shetland.
Details of the rescue plan are still scant but among the ideas revealed at Wednesday’s meeting of the social services committee are to convert the centre’s basement into premises for producing food, including catering for the luncheon club, which is attended by about 30 people six days a week. At the moment the meals are brought in from the council’s Kantersted home.
Freefield could eventually open for longer hours, act as a drop-in centre, provide day care for people with assessed needs and be used by other community groups and for training. On top of that the voluntary partnership may take over maintenance of the building.
Explaining the groups’ interest, council policy manager Emma Perring said some had had ideas in the past but no premises to carry them out in while others, like WRVS, were now becoming more active in Shetland. They recognised the changes taking place in society and wanted to get together and work out how to help, probably as a social enterprise.
Interim director of community care Sally Shaw said there was a real commitment among the groups to work together and “do something that’s not been done in Shetland before”. A business plan for the centre is expected to be ready within six weeks.
The strong reaction to the closure proposal and to attempts to look at other venues, such as Islesburgh Community Centre, has left the council with a clear message that Freefield is what the customers want. Mrs Shaw said moving from Freefield was “quite non-negotiable”.
The council wants out of the Freefield Centre because it wants to stop paying for people who had not been assessed as in need to attend the lunch club. Few of those making use of the £3.50 meals at the centre have been assessed as needy.
Mrs Shaw said spending money on non-assessed services could not be justified at a time of cuts. Although it wants to save £80,000, mainly on the cost of providing staff and food, it will keep £50,000 a year in its budget to pay for meals or day care for people who are assessed as in need.
The council hopes to withdraw from the centre gradually with a view to handing over completely by April. The change would mean the loss of five part-time council jobs but managers are confident the employees can be absorbed into the community care workforce, which has a high turnover.
While the social services committee welcomed the progress so far councillor Allan Wishart was concerned about the lack of detail and the possibility that the talks with the voluntary sector might not be successful.
Councillor Jonathan Wills was glad to see that the value of the service had been recognised by officials but wished the changes could take place a bit faster.