Alan Castle: Time to put the needy in front of the greedy

I START this week’s column, dear reader, with a question.

What is more important for the good of the community – the care and well-being of disabled people and decent school buildings for the education of our children or the building of a new road?

Not too many weeks ago, the Gazette highlighted moves by Northumberland County Council over the future of learning disability day centers.

A short explanation. A day care centre is where people with learning disabilities can find work in simple but imaginative job creation. These are often used by the severely disabled for stimulation.

In this county there are five such centres, including the largest at Hepscott Park Horticultural Unit and similar units at Sleekburn and Ridley Hall, west of Hexham at Morpeth. There are others at Berwick and Hexham, which recycle furniture among other tasks, and at Alnwick, where a catering project and garden work are carried out. There is gift-making at Blyth and Bedlington. They also provide trips out for the disabled along with other projects.

I am told that they are not only a boon to the individuals concerned, but also to parents of disabled adults who find a few hours respite while their offspring – whose ages can range from 18 to 60 – are there from nine to four, five days a week. .

However, backed by Government proposals, the homes run by Northumberland County Council could be shifted into the private sector, a move which brought anger months ago when the authority did the same with elderly centres.

A council official is quoted as saying: “We need to move away from the traditional model where people spend most of their time sitting in buildings to a service which helps people to participate more in the ordinary life of the community, getting out and following their own interests.”

He adds: “We do not think it is realistic for the county to try to make these kinds of changes while continuing to run the services directly but we will ensure there is effective control and accountability to the elected representatives of the people.”

Private enterprise puts one thing above all else and that is profit. Surely those in authority must have learned some lessons from the collapse of Southern Cross and its nursing homes.

Two questions spring instantly to mind. Can the existing staff not be trained to make these changes? If not, why not?

What about the parents of these users? Are they being consulted and will their views be taken into consideration?

I hope any objections made are not totally ignored by the elected representatives of the people.

There is also the news that schools throughout the county are in a desperate state and not fit for purpose, with a case in point being Alnwick’ s Duchess’s High School.

Now let us return to the original question. Only a few days after launching the above exercise, councillors seem decided to ask the Government for £37million for a new road, for which I have seen no great demand.

County council bosses are seeking Department for Transport funding for 70 per cent of the £37million of the cost of the 3.8km final section of the route, which will provide a more direct link between former mining towns like Ashington and Blyth and the main A1 north of Morpeth.

Surely it is more important that we keep local control over centres for the disabled, rather than handing it over to big business, and schools are surely much more important than a road which, although is welcomed, cannot be said to be a huge priority.

I know the usual arguments will be trotted out that the transport money is in a different department to education and the needs of the handicapped.

We can put up with bad roads for a bit longer – after all, we have put up with them for years – but the education of our children in decent buildings and the care of our less-able citizens must be a much higher priority for the council.

It’s admirable, however, that the county council has at last forged ahead to get Government money for a new Duchess’s High.

Not before time.