THE future of West Berkshire Mencap's children's services has been thrown into doubt following the district council’s decision to slash funding to the charity.
According to chief executive, Leila Ferguson, the charity, which provides services for people with learning difficulties, will lose £137,000 from its budget after Conservative councillors voted on the cuts at a meeting earlier this month.
In total, the move will see funding provided to local voluntary organisations who provide short breaks for disabled children reduced from £386,575 to £163,432.
Following the decision, Ms Ferguson said the severe dent in the charity’s funding may mean it can no longer continue operating it's children's services, which includes Easter and Summer playschemes, and an after school club, beyond next year.
“I’m absolutely devastated,” she said. “Currently we will be able to run until March 2017 but then who knows?
“We have hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of equipment, we’ve got the playground, the softplay room, hundreds of volunteers and highly- trained staff members, and the thought of all of this equipment all going rusty while other organisations struggle to raise funds to get equipment like this is so frustrating.
“I understand the local authority is under a large amount of pressure with the budget but I think this decision is very shortsighted.
“We will continue to look for funding but in the meantime we can’t expect someone who is highly-trained to wait around to see if we can find it to continue going – in all likelihood they’ll find somewhere else.”
The decision to cut the funding for short breaks for disabled children had initially been made in March, as the cash-strapped council struggled to make £17.5m worth of savings.
However, following a legal challenge by two Newbury families affected by the cuts, that decision, along with a subsequent decision to ratify the cuts in May, was ruled unlawful by a High Court judge who said councillors had failed to consider other relevant statutory duties before they decided to proceed with the cuts.
As a result, the council revisited the decision at a meeting earlier this month with councillors once again voting in favour of the move, while this time, according to council bosses, considering all their other options and duties in the process.
But now Ms Ferguson says the cuts have left families relying on the services provided by the likes of Mencap with nowhere to turn.
“Some of the families have no alternative,” she said. “We only opened two weeks of the summer instead of four weeks following the initial decision in March and some of the families went to another organisation that is three times the price.”
West Berkshire Mencap will be holding a Mayor’s Murder Mystery dinner on October 14 to raise funds.
Anyone interested in attending can call (01635) 41464 to reserve a table.
NB. We have been asked to clarify that it is just the children's services which are under threat while other services offered by West Berkshire Mencap will remain unaffected.