Somerset County Councillors meeting at the Canalside centre in Bridgwater were greeted by large numbers of protestors from the Save Somerset Community Services Campaign from across the county protesting about the closure of the St Andrews ward in Wells and the relocation of beds to Yeovil. Protestors spoke in the public question time section and their calls were picked up by Labour councillor Hilary Bruce (Bridgwater North-Central) who asked the Chair of Adults and Health Scrutiny Committee to call in the item for further investigation. Cllr Bruce said “Concerning the Scrutiny committees decision to support the relocation in 2020 was their any ongoing scrutiny put in place to monitor and review the implementation plan? Many things have changed since then and so I ask for this to be brought back in the light of the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the cuts to public transport. We should ask if Somerset County Council should have supported this decision by the CCG and whether they should now review that and put in place measures to protect the provision of mental health services.”
Campaigners gathered outside the Canalside centre from early morning and lobbied councillors as they arrived. Longstanding campaigner Emma King from Glastonbury was the first to speak saying “With regard to the decision by the previous county council to support the decision of the then CCG in the closure of St Andrew’s ward in Wells, being the last remaining mental health ward in Mendip, in spite of the fact that the county council are meant to be elected representatives and 52% of respondents to the consultation disagreed with the decision: it is my opinion, and that of many others, with over 4000 signatures on the petition to save the ward, that the scrutiny of this decision by the previous council did not follow council procedures and, as such, it is incumbent upon the new council to revisit this decision. Furthermore, the consultation conducted by the ICB (formerly CCG) concluded in April 2020 and, as such, does not take into consideration the mental health implications of either the pandemic or the cost-of-living crisis. Somerset Intelligence, a partnership project funded by Somerset County Council, Somerset West & Taunton District Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Mendip District Council and South Somerset District Council, includes key facts for Somerset on suicide, stating that the suicide rate for Somerset for the period 2017-19 was statistically higher than the national average and between 2005 and 2019 there were 779 suicides, an average of just over 50 a year. It also states that there is a strong association between suicide rates and levels of deprivation. The rate for suicide and undetermined death for residents living in the 20% most deprived areas in Somerset being significantly higher than for the county as a whole.”
Pressure from the Public
Emma King continued “The impact of the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis is only increasing the levels of economic deprivation and therefore people’s mental health is declining. For example, a BACP survey, dated 8 th Sept 2022, states that 66% of therapists have noticed that cost of living concerns are causing a decline in people’s mental health. Therefore, even thought the ICB is planning on “moving away from bed based interventions”, it is clear that the closure of this ward is ill-thought out and will deprive people in crisis from accessing a service near to their homes, possibly resulting in them being sent, not only potentially to Yeovil, but possibly hundreds of miles away to places where they will be unable to be visited by friends or family, support which is essential to making a swift recovery. Although the decision has been made by the ICB (now CCG) there is evidence to suggest that this can be overturned with enough pressure from the public. A decision from the county council to withdraw support for this closure would send a strong message that we need St Andrew’s ward to remain in situ to continue the long record of excellent inpatient mental health service which has existed in Wells for hundreds of years and ensure that those of us in crisis and in need can get the care we need in the place we need it.”
‘Do the Right and Ethical thing’
She was followed by campaigners from the Mendip area including Eva Bryczkowski who asked ” Will Somerset County Councillors strive and fight to reverse the woeful decision to close Saint Andrews Ward? Will SCC councillors exercise due diligence and empower yourselves and your electorate by reading the Suicide Prevention Report and visit the people in Saint Andrews Ward, with their permission, to listen and find out the best ways you can help?” and “Will you provide us with hard evidence to show that you have done your homework properly by choosing to do the right and ethical thing regarding the patients in Saint Andrews Ward?”
Severe underfunding of the NHS
Ina particularly emotional speech relating to her personal experience, as the wife of a Falklands war veteran who suffered from traumatic stress, Mendip resident Bev Anderson asked ” Should and If St. Andrews Ward be closed in the future I am gravely concerned in regard to the matter of finance and funding for the new 16 bed in patient ward that has been considered. Can the ICB, in the current economic situation of the country, the severe underfunding of the NHS considers without full scrutiny, (which it has failed to do thus far), consider fundamentally putting the burden of this financial matter to people of Mendip? Please can the ICB give a full account of the method of funding, which is believed to be “seed funding/ finance” should St Andrews not be saved and a new build as suggested in Yeovil? Please can The ICB provide the names of the investors and the percentages of their investment? Please can the ICB provide the Full amount and stage that they have agreed to regard “seed funding” and whether the investors are that of private health providers / Companies etc? Please can the ICB provide fully accountable and transparent conflict of interest checks in regard to the investors, so that we can all have a level playing field so there is no smoke screen for any future?!”
‘Decision already made’ says Lib Dem PFH
Lib Dem portfolio Holder for Adult Social Services, Mendip Councillor Heather Shearer thanked the protestors and said how important it was to hear their voices and those of the people who used the services but stressed that it was a decision made by the CCG (the Clinical Commissioning Group) and that scrutiny panels in both Mendip and South Somerset had reviewed this decision and agreed with it.
The answer appeared to brush the subject under the carpet despite its grand words and when Cllr Hilary Bruce asked the Scrutiny Chair Cllr Rosemary Woods to make sure it was in fact back on the agenda Cllr Shearer got to her feet again to say that while she welcomed being held to account and being scrutinised she insisted it was “a decision that has already been made”, although, she added “we were all affected by the testimony from the members of the public”.
A Question of ‘integrity’
Cllr Brian Smedley (Bridgwater South, Labour) summed up “For me the most important part of the campaigners contribution was when Emma King said ‘is this administration going to act with the integrity that the previous council lacked?’ Why’s that important? Because the Scrutiny process has been questioned and in fact it was the Lib Dems who were in charge of the scrutiny process under the past Tory administration and now they run the council so they are under pressure to prove there’s a difference. It’s all very well for the lead member to say how lovely it is to listen to the campaigners but then in the same breath edge her options by saying there’s probably no point in it. Labour are calling for a proper review of this whole matter because what they do in Wells could be a template across the whole county.”