Council to consult Walthamstow residents on closing down centre for disabled adults

The future of a Walthamstow day centre for disabled adults hangs in the balance as the council prepares to launch a consultation on its closure.

Waltham Forest Council is looking to close the Markhouse Centre and move to a system that prioritises “individual needs,” after it found that it would cost almost £1.3million to restore the building.

Councillors agreed to run a public consultation on the centre between July 8 and August 16 at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday (June 4).

Councillor Louise Mitchell, the cabinet member for adult social care, said the authority was looking at shifting from a “building-based” approach to a “people-based” approach.

If Markhouse was to close, then attendees would instead go to day centres nearer to where they live and where the council says they would be catered for.

Council leader Grace Williams agreed with Cllr Mitchell, adding “it’s important the council was focused on people, not around buildings”.

There are currently 53 residents with learning disabilities who attend the Markhouse Centre, which offers group-based activities such as gardening and keeping fit.

An average of 28 people attend throughout the day, on Mondays through Friday, according to council figures.

There was only one referral to the service in March and the authority said there had been a reduction in demand for “traditional, building-based” services across the eight centres in the borough.

However, James O’Rourke, a former councillor and social worker whose brother uses the service, said it could disrupt the lives of disabled people who have built friendships there.

He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the proposal was “disgraceful,” adding: “People with learning disabilities are sentient and they develop friendships.

“Moving them to the four corners of the borough would mean removing them from their friendship circles. They will have built relationships over many years.

“We don’t know what the psychological impact would be.”

He added: “Cuts tend to happen to people who can’t speak up for themselves.”

The council would need to spend £1.26million to bring the Markhouse Centre up to an “acceptable condition,” according to a report published after the meeting. However, that seven-figure sum would not cover fixes for “general obsolescence” and other sustainability issues the authority has identified.

In 2016, it spent £489,000 on “essential works” to the building, but no investment has since been made.

The council did not explore the option of private sector ownership as there was “no indication” anyone would be willing to absorb the costs associated with renovating the building. Additionally, “significant funding gaps” would prevent building a new centre in its place.

The authority previously consulted on whether the Markhouse Centre was fit for purpose and in a suitable location in July 2021, but ultimately opted to keep it running for the time being.

This new round of proposals comes as the council looks to make £18m in cuts over the next two years.

Waltham Forest’s chief financial officer Rob Manning previously said the council is facing “unprecedented levels of demand” on its services – particularly adult social care, children’s welfare, special needs support and temporary housing.

A final decision will be made on the centre in November.

A council spokesperson said: “Waltham Forest Council aims to provide the best possible care for our residents with learning disabilities who have eligible social care needs. As part of this, we are consulting on the future of the Markhouse Centre.

“We are not immune from the current financial crisis in local government. We must make difficult decisions to manage our budget. The number of people relying on us for adult social care has risen by over 1,000 since 2018/19, up from 2,270 to 3,385 people.

“It is vitally important that people currently accessing day opportunities at the Markhouse Centre receive the best available provision for their needs. If a decision is made to close the Markhouse Centre, we will carry out individual assessment with each person and alternative support will be identified in line with their needs.”

Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter