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Elderly fight council to keep home comforts

Pensioners mount test case against community care legislation that will close homes and put their welfare in strange hands

Social Services Correspondent

A campaign against the closure of an old people's home reaches the High Court in London today in a test case which could affect the community care policies of local authorities across the country.

Wandsworth borough council in south London - a flagship Tory authority - wants to close a council-run home and transfer the 48 residents to another council home, which will then be privatised to save the council money.

But residents at George Potter House in Battersea do not want to move. They are happy there, and are used to their familiar routine, surroundings and staff. They fear the disruption will upset their lives.

The Wandworth closure is just one more among hundreds occurring around the country. This shift from local authority to private residential homes - or to care in their own homes - is a result of the Community Care Act, which came into force in April 1993. It states that local authorities must spend 85 per cent of their community care budgets in the independent sector.

The emotive issue at the core of the policy is the trauma caused to thousands of frail and elderly people by uprooting them from places they consider home. According to such charities as Age Concern, they are victims of a policy that most political parties and pressure groups approve of, but which is in reality driven by financial concerns.

Between March 1989 and 1994, the number of local authority homes in England fell from 3,400 to 2,600 and the number of residents from 111,000 to 72,300. In the same period, the number of voluntary and private homes rose from 11,100 to 13,600 and the number of residents from 163,600 to 218,500.

The Wandworth test case is being brought by residents represented by Bill Beckwith, 75, who has lived at George Potter House for two years.On his behalf Wandsworth law centre is fighting the council's proposals to close George Potter House and sell off its three other homes.

In a judicial review, the residents will argue the council is required by law to maintain some direct local authority provision for the frail and elderly, because Parliament intended they should have a choice, including a council-run home. They claim the council has used inaccurate figures to show there is overprovision of residential homes in the borough and has under-estimated the need for respite and emergency places for the elderly frail.

The residents and their families and supporters wish to retain the services provided in George Potter House by staff they praise as devoted and caring. According to their solicitor, Gabrielle O'Connor, the residents fear the insecurity of living in a private home, run more cheaply with fewer, less-qualified staff. They fear there would be a high turnover of workers and pressure to confine residents to their rooms for long periods.

Opposition councillors and the local community health council are also particularly concerned about what they fear would be inadequate supervision and monitoring of standards of care.

Many of the existing staff at George Potter House worry about the future for the residents, about two-thirds of whom are aged over 80. "The move will be bad for them physically and psychologically," said one who asked not to be named.

Mr Beckwith is not as fit as he was; he has short-term memory problems and his mobility has been restricted since he developed arthritis. But his spirit is strong and he is determined to fight.

At George Potter House he likes the food, the clean laundry, and having his own room with remote-control TV. He says the friendly atmosphere, including parties and sing-songs, will be irreplacable.

Asked what he thought of Wansworth's plans to close the home, he said: "They are treating us like cattle, to be shifted around in a herd. They are only interested in saving money. I will be in court and if I get the chance I'll tell the judge she should visit this home and see for herself what a grand place it is."

The sale of George Potter House will earn Wandsworth council an estimated £1.5m. A spokesman for the council said: "We obviously think we have proceeded properly. There is no doubt whatsoever that all the residents will go to another residential home for as long as they wish to stay there. We are trying to become an enabler rather than a direct provider, which the Government expects councils to do. We are supporters of a mixed economy and we think our plans will add to the choices residents have.There are lots of different providers."