Campaigners call on Elmbridge local election candidates to help fight 'cuts' to 'lifeline' services

Fighting for their right to stay open, residents are calling on Elmbridge Borough Council election candidates to keep day centres in community hands. The cross-party Elmbridge Community Centres Alliance (ECCA) has asked all those standing at the upcoming elections on May 2 if they will support the restoration of at least a five day a week service for the elderly and residents in need.

Elderly people using the Elmbridge community centres say they face reductions in services, closure on Wednesdays and Thames Ditton Centre moving to the private sector. The day centres offer activities from bridge club, physical exercise, sewing or woodwork activities and more.

The ECCA, set up to oppose these cuts, said: "These centres represent a vital service for our growing elderly population and residents in need who face isolation and loneliness.” Writing to all the candidates, the cross-party alliance said they have had a “slow trickle” of support from some.

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“Everyone is wondering if Rishi Sunak is going to win the General Election, but what’s going to be the result for my people in Elmbridge?”, Ruth Lyon said, a Thames Ditton resident and ECCA co-chairperson.

Community centres in the borough were originally closed in November 2023 for fire safety checks and training. From January 2024, they were open just one day a week but this caused many residents to ‘miss out’ due to high demand of the services, claim campaigners.

Tuesday marked the start of community centres opening four days a week; however, all the seven centres across the borough will remain closed on Wednesdays to allow staff training, planning and administration. Calling the Wednesday closures and shorter hours “ridiculous”, the ECCA criticised and questioned the need for Elmbridge Borough Council (EBC) to train its staff one day a week for 18 months. Opening times have also been cut to 10am-3pm, rather than 9am-4pm, which has left day centre users feeling disappointed they cannot have afternoon sessions.

Thames Ditton community centre is home to volunteer groups including Boomerang Bags, a reusable bags sewing workshop
Thames Ditton community centre is home to volunteer groups including Boomerang Bags, a reusable bags sewing workshop -Credit:Emily Dalton/LDRS

‘I want to spread the good’

One elderly Hersham resident, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) was told, only left his house once a week to attend a Zumba class with his friends. His mental wellbeing has “declined” and he has stopped going altogether because of the earlier closure of the centre.

Tracey Melson, who volunteers at the Molesey day centre, said she has noticed a physical and mental deterioration in her dad in the time the centre has been closed. Going to the centre everyday, a mile on his mobility scooter, gave her dad the movement, independence and mental stimulation he needed for his physical health and wellbeing.

Now Tracey is calling for EBC to open community centres five days a week to show what community they have to offer and increase what they have on offer. She added: “I see what good this can do, and I want to spread that.”

‘Out of control with bureaucracy’

According to ECCA, day centres volunteers are being “expected” to get public liability insurance, carry out risk assessments and achieve health and safety standards in their own time.

Mary Sheldon, volunteer for Meals on Wheels, said the council and the centres have gone “completely out of control with bureaucracy” and contact with the community has gone. She added many volunteers are left feeling “patronised” and “ostracised” by the training and/or lack of consultation in community centre changes.

“These are volunteers,” Ruth said. “Yet the council is chasing them as if they are employees and [but] not getting paid.”

Running a bridge club at Thames Ditton centre for 20 years as a volunteer, Rowena Austin is now facing the prospect of having to pay to hire the hall as it faces privatisation. She said: “It is not all about the game of bridge, this is about older people getting together socially, talking, making friends, helping their confidence and giving them reason to get out and about.”

Photo outside Molesey Centre, Geoff Miller 88 (Image Tracey Melson)
Photo outside Molesey Centre, Geoff Miller 88 (Image Tracey Melson)

Users of the centre have claimed the council's actions has been "privatisation by stealth" as the centres have not received proper investment or advertising for years, causing a reduction in visitors. “I don't think you need to make cuts,” Tracey said. “If you publicised these centres enough you would get increased revenue coming in with more people coming in whether it’s private hire or [community-run].”

A council spokesperson said: “In the last few months our primary focus has been, and remains, our determination to offer Elmbridge residents safe and robust community services from the Centres for the Community. We know this is a valued service providing support, socalisation and enjoyment to our users and we have been working to provide that service in the safest and most stable way possible.

"As part of our commitment to building back centre services safely, we have put in additional resources (£431,000 over 18 months) and safety procedures. This will provide the staffing levels to embed the best health and safety practice across our centre services. We will always strive to meet, if not exceed these standards in all our centres for the community.”

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