"The days of people being kept like mushrooms…are over!" Vee Ball
For anyone who thinks that Salford Council cuts are inevitable... that public services can be closed down...that austerity will grind them into the ground…Think again.
Yesterday, happy users of Salford's mental health services showed the Salford Star around Eccles Community Centre, its new two day a week home for drop-in groups.
"I assumed that we wouldn't get anything, that there was no point in doing anything because the Council had made its mind up where the money was going, all really negative stuff" recalls service user Danielle "Then, recently I came and looked at this place and I was, like, `Wow!'"
There's a huge tv, table tennis, football and snooker tables, comfy armchairs, a fully fitted kitchen, rooms that can be used for one-to-one sessions, and, downstairs, a semi kitted out sports hall that could be used for life skill classes and more…
It was late last year that a placard waving group first appeared at Salford City Mayor, Ian Stewart's open question time at Democracy Day on the lawns of the Civic Centre (see here).
The placards being waved in his face read `Where's our caring sharing Mayor?' and `No More Tory Lib Dem Cheerleader'. Those waving them were from a newly formed group of mental health service users called, appropriately, USUC (United Service Users Committee)…
They were protesting against the axing of two of their support workers which they believed would, in effect, close the drop-in sessions that were vital to their wellbeing (see here)…
"These drop-ins are keeping us out of places like Meadowbrook, Prestwich and, most likely, cemeteries" Steve Cullen told Stewart.
For the campaigners, the fight was quite literally about `life and death'. And Vee Ball, a carer for service user Rob who had made 21 attempts on his own life, told the Salford Star at the time just how difficult it was to go public with their protest…
"It's very scary, it's not something we find easy and we're all absolutely trembling" she said "We're just a gang of ordinary people, quite nervous, trying to make this man understand that there's a lot at stake…"
Over the next six months the USUC banner reading `Mental Health Cuts Will Kill In Salford' appeared everywhere – on local anti cuts demonstrations and lobbies of Salford Council and Greater Manchester West NHS Foundation Trust…on national anti-cuts demonstrations, at public meetings and outside the Labour Party Conference (see here and see here and see here and see here). Campaigners even got a private chat with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband who promised to look into the matter and have a word with his axe wielding Labour Mayor (see here).
In the weeks that followed, service users had to contend with drop-ins being moved from the base at Cromwell House (due to `safety work') to unsuitable premises like the Rainbow Rooms (no windows) and Gateway centres (too public), plus a consultation with service users that was labelled a `sham'.
But the determined group continued its protests, with support from Salford City UNISON and Salford Against The Cuts, which reached a head when they, firstly, occupied the Council chamber as a full council meeting was due to start (see here) and later, stopped a cuts budget meeting in its tracks by blowing whistles and chanting, to the point when the police were called to remove them (see here).
The high profile campaign, run and led by some of the most vulnerable people in Salford, forced Salford Council to think again – and to take on board service users' ideas for how the drop-ins could continue.
First USUC came up with the idea of using Byron Hall as a kind of one-stop shop and drop-in but that wasn't a Council building and needed money spending on it. Instead they found Eccles Community Centre on Gladstone Road and have recently moved in.
"They offered two days, Tuesdays and Thursdays, also gave us Cromwell House back for Wednesdays as a concession until 31st July, plus a couple of other spots on Mondays and Fridays" says Vee "So they ended up with a five day plan of somewhere for service users to go every day – from having nothing for months. And we attribute that to the fight we put up which we think was pretty productive.
"In the end I'm happy that we got this place out of it, and I believe that, had we not done what we did, they would have pushed the drop-ins into rooms at Gateways with hardly any facilities" she adds "Having said that, what is so annoying for some users at least, is that they put them through hell. They made users suffer immeasurably when they didn't need to. They used con tricks, bad tactics, deceit and manipulation to get what they wanted, and the consultation, in my mind, still remains a farce. It was stacked against us from the start. But we fought very hard and I'm very proud of the users for what they did, it took guts."
Now the Council has asked USUC to write a proposal for Eccles Community Centre to be more than a two day drop-in, with life skill classes, rooms for one-to-one sessions and more. However, the campaign against mental health service cuts continues…
"Our acceptance of the building does not, by any means, suggest that we have accepted the Council's proposal of zero professional support" Vee explains "They believe that volunteers are going to come soley from us, and that we are going to do everything. We've put our foot down and said `Absolutely not'.
"It's the same argument as it was from the very beginning - that you can't put people with psychiatric and mental health problems in a room together and hope there will not be any murder and mayhem along the way without any managerial supervision" she adds "We'll do our best as volunteers but you still need some expertise on board, otherwise it won't work."
The Council and USUC are currently negotiating, with the Start In Salford organisation possibly being an option to solve the impasse. In the meantime, service users are enjoying the informality, and the exclusivity of having their own space.
"We've got sole occupancy when we're open and we're not being judged by anybody in a mixed use building" says USUC's Steve Cullen "It's been worth the struggle… the look on people's faces on the first day we opened made it worth it. But we're not going away quietly; we're still running the campaign to keep the support workers involved in the drop-ins and to improve the hours."
In the politics of the battle to preserve the drop-ins - complete with police, Ed Miliband and the Mayor – it was easy to forget that there were real vulnerable people both in the foreground and in the background. People whose lives were being affected by Salford Council's officers' bottom line financial decisions.
"I was going to the Cromwell House drop-in and didn't get involved in the fight just because I found it a bit too stressful, I just felt like everything was crumbling" says Danielle "My whole thing is to get myself out and come to these groups to make myself less depressed. If I'd gone to the Rainbow Rooms it wouldn't have been any different than staying home and staring at four walls. But this place has a good atmosphere, it's a good space, you don't feel claustrophobic, so I'm really happy.
"At the start I didn't think that there was much point in the campaign; I said that the Council had made their minds up and they wouldn't change" she adds "USUC fought for all of us and, if they hadn't, we probably would have lost. This has changed my opinion. I would definitely encourage people in Salford to fight…"
If Salford Council and the Greater Manchester West NHS Foundation Trust thought they would have an easy cuts ride with some of the most vulnerable people in Salford - some of whom were frightened to even go outside their own homes and drop-in groups – they got one hell of a shock…
"The days of people being kept like mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed on shit – are over" says Vee "People are now becoming increasingly aware that they have a voice, that they can speak out, and that they will be heard one way or another. It's tough, it's difficult but at the end of the day you shouldn't have to settle for crumbs…"
• The new drop-ins take place between 10am and 1pm Tuesdays and Thursdays. Eccles Community Centre, Gladstone Road.
Any service users, past or present, who have attended drop-ins at community health buildings are more than welcome.