Council cuts hit older people hardest, commissioner says

Pensioner's like Eira from the Rhondda says council day centres are a lifeline for the elderly

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Older people in Wales will be hardest hit by local authority cuts, the person responsible for championing their needs has said.

Older people's commissioner for Wales Sarah Rochira, told BBC Wales' Week In Week Out programme reduced spending could have a "devastating impact" on lives with costly future consequences.

She called for community services to be protected in a new report on Tuesday.

But council representatives say it is a "fallacy" every service can be saved.

'Costly consequences'

Ms Rochira said older people constantly raised with her the importance of services such as community transport, public toilets, libraries, leisure facilities and day centres.

"There is real concern among many older people that these vital services are disappearing, which will have a devastating impact on their lives," she said.

CASE STUDY

Eira

Week In Week Out has spent three months following the story of 85-year-old Eira, from Ynyshir in the Rhondda valleys, as she and her friends battle to save their local day centre.

The local authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf, wants to close the centre this April as part of plans to cut £70m over the next four years.

Eira is a regular at the centre where she pays for a subsidised hot meal and socialises with her friends.

"I sit in the same seat every time... we sit together have a chat and enjoy ourselves like that," she said.

Eira suffers from the eye condition macular degeneration and said that daily tasks were difficult.

"Cooking or frying, I'd be a bit nervous about that... so closing the centre is going to be really really hard for me," she said.

"As long as I've got breath in my body, I'll keep on fighting."

But Michael Forey, a member of the council's cabinet, defended the changes saying the reality of the funding situation across Wales meant savings had to be found very quickly.

He said that services in the area would be of good quality even after the changes.

"In providing those nine day centres, in continuing to provide 12 libraries in Rhondda Cynon Taf, in continuing to provide a meals on wheels service that is second to none within Wales... we will be complying with our statutory requirements and will be assisting communities as best we are able," he said.

"These services are not luxuries - they are essential to the maintenance of older people's health, independence and wellbeing.

"These services are also essential to the delivery of national priorities relating to prevention, citizen focus and community resilience, containing the costs upon statutory services and maintaining the wider health of the economy.

"These services should be seen as essential community assets."

Ms Rochira told BBC Wales' Week In Week Out programme that losing community services could lead to bigger, more costly consequences.

Her report - The Importance and Impact of Community Services within Wales - also says these services make a "huge contribution to the Welsh economy, currently worth £1bn a year, through continued employment, volunteering and childcare".

Across Wales, local authorities are looking for ways to save money after the Welsh government announced in October funding would be cut by 5.81%.

  • Some 26 libraries could close this April and 13 leisure facilities such as sports centres and swimming pools are under threat
  • Over a third of local authorities are planning on cutting back on street lighting, and six local authorities are considering cutting back on subsidised bus routes
  • Almost half of councils are considering either increasing the price of meals on wheels or ending the service completely

And according to new analysis released on Tuesday by Age Cymru, 41,000 people in Wales aged 65 and over were often or always lonely.

The charity's chief executive Ian Thomas said he was worried that the current climate of cuts could lead to increasing levels of isolation.

"There is a lot of short termism going on at the moment with local authority cuts because taking out the day centres, taking out bus routes, those libraries, will just mean that those older people within their communities will end up needing to access other services," he said.

"So you'll see a greater pressure on primary care such as GP services and also with the secondary care services such as hospitals - and indeed the social work services.

"And what I think we will start to see as well in Wales is a growing isolation. We'll probably see things like mortality rates go up - certainly the effect on people's mental health as well."

Sarah Rochira Sarah Rochira said there could be bigger, more costly consequences

The body which represents councils in Wales admitted the longer term consequences - such as growing mortality rates - was a problem, but said it was not possible to protect every service provided by councils.

Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) chief executive Steve Thomas said: "What councils are trying to do is set budgets which have least impact in terms of the front line but most of our services are front line services.

"The idea that you can protect every dimension of public service is, I'm afraid, a fallacy.

"It's just not going to happen - the scale of cuts is such that the budgets of local authorities are declining and that means as those budgets decline, the scale of services they provide decline, that's a horrible fact of life."

Responding to criticism that cutting services would lead to more costs in the future, he said: "If the money's not there to keep the services open, what are the alternatives?"

The WLGA has warned that 10,000 council posts could go across Wales in the next four years.

Week In Week Out, BBC One Wales, 22:35 GMT, Tuesday 25 February

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