Bob Whitehead reports on an inspiring anti-cuts victory in Birmingham – collective action makes a difference.
As part of its huge cuts package, voted through by the Birmingham Council ConDem leadership, several respite homes for disabled children were put under threat. But one of them, Charles House, in West Heath, has now secured its future. At the January council meeting, the reply from the Birmingham City Council Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Families (Councillor Les Lawrence) to a written question from Cllr Eddie Freeman (Weoley Ward) said it all;
“A significant number of comments, representations and consultation responses were received with regard to the provision of respite services to those young people, such as attending Charles House, indicating the value and importance of the service to their well-being, personal development and families.
The commitment shown by parents, staff and young people as expressed at the Northfield Ward Committee Meeting and at the meeting, as you detail in your question, was an important factor in the consideration of the future for Charles House.
I can therefore confirm that Charles House will continue to be a vital component in the overall provision of respite services. Already changes to the process by which places are provided have occurred, staffing profiles assessed, to enable improvements in the access to and provision of placements.
Therefore Charles House, which has on three separate occasions been judged by OfSTED as outstanding, will continue to provide high quality respite care for young people together with supporting their families underpinned by staff who are highly respected.”
There is not much wriggle room in that. So, congratulations to the staff and children of Charles House, their parents who campaigned so effectively and to everyone else who lent their active support. The latter includes a few Labour Councillors in the South West of the City and our own Stirchley and Cotteridge against the Cuts group. (SACAC)
This victory was achieved by high-profile, effective and militant campaigning, led by the parents themselves. It was all organised at regular mass parent meetings; they planned the press campaigning, the lobbying, the letters to be written and the relevant meetings to be attended. These meetings also invited in Council officials such as Eleanor Brazil, legal experts and Les Lawrence himself. Some Labour Councillors turned up at times of their own volition, others had to be dragged. SACAC members were proud to have been invited in for every meeting, to give support and advice on campaigning strategy .
But it was SACAC that pioneered the two most public demonstrations, a street corner Saturday morning stall in Cotteridge on Saturday 5th November and on the Kings Norton Green on Saturday 10th December. This latter event was preceded by parents, children and SACAC members filling up Councillor Steve Bedser’s surgery to bursting point and winning Steve’s active support for Charles House. At both stalls the public support received was overwhelming.
It was also SACAC that accompanied the parents to a memorable Northfield Ward Committee meeting on Monday 21st November. To say that the campaign made its point forcibly would be an understatement. It was probably the turning point – as acknowledged in the letter above. Councillor Lawrence was reminded in no uncertain terms of the promise he had made to keep Merrishaw Community Day Nursery open, only for the shutters to go up soon after. When we all trooped out having made our point, Cllr Lawrence followed, and spoke to us in a very different tone of voice. It was probably at this point that it was realised a big mistake had been made.
So, the articles in the press, the coverage in the B31 blog, the lobbying of Councillors, the street demonstrations, the letters written and the solidarity achieved by keeping all parents together, plus the support of the local anti-cuts group, made a victory possible.
We, of course, hope that the survival of Charles House is not at the expense of any other such house or Council services. But if anywhere else does feel threatened, the service users concerned can take a leaf out of the Charles House parents’ campaign to see how to defend themselves.
If and when the Council cutters come for any other vital services in this part of the city, be rest assured that SACAC will be there once more. And while we think about it, is it not time to consider re-opening Merrishaw Community Day Nursery?