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Hungerford in shock as Village Agent scheme to be scrapped

Mayor demands: 'Why weren't we informed?'

John Garvey

John Garvey

john.garvey@newburynews.co.uk

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01635 886628

Shock as Village Agent scheme to be scrapped

ANGER and dismay has greeted a decision to quietly axe West Berkshire’s Village Agent scheme.

And the result for Hungerford will be “catastrophic”, warned town mayor Helen Simpson.

The bombshell news was revealed at a full town council meeting on Monday night by Mrs Simpson, who only learned about it from devastated clients of the service.

The scheme was launched across West Berkshire seven years ago by the Volunteer Centre West Berkshire charity – and Hungerford’s agent, Catherine Wooliston (pictured), was in at the start.

She confirmed yesterday (Wednesday) that she had been informed her services would no longer be required as of March 31.

The Village Agent scheme provides home visits and puts older or socially isolated residents in direct contact with community, voluntary and statutory agencies that offer help and advice and to assist them in engaging in local activities.

West Berkshire Council has reportedly known since last October that the current scheme was to be scrapped.

But Mrs Simpson said at the meeting: “We had no prior knowledge of this.

“I just had an email from a client of the service saying they couldn’t believe we’re losing this resource.

“And it’s been flagged as a huge concern for the local doctors’ surgery.

“Why weren’t we informed? I’m hugely concerned by all those that will be left behind.

“Apparently it’s a done and dusted deal; we’ve no time to rally.

“It’s catastrophic.

“We’re talking social isolation here.

“No one else will be able to do the job our Village Agent did.

“I can’t see how anything else would replace it.” 

Village Agents helped with housing, pensions, benefits, safety, transport, health care and dozens of other issues.

Mrs Wooliston, a former local midwife, said she was saddened to be leaving the role and had been “overwhelmed” by the reaction of clients to the news.

Volunteer Centre West Berkshire had been asked by West Berkshire Council to take on an impossible workload, said its director Garry Poulson.

He said in a statement yesterday: “Following careful consideration by the trustees, the charity elected not to bid for the funds from West Berkshire Council  as we considered that there were simply inadequate funds available to deliver the service in a safe professional way. 

“West Berkshire Council advertised for a provider to do additional work to include cohorts of clients that we simply could not have supported without greater investment to ensure that case loads were dealt with thoroughly, particularly around mental illness, physical disabilities and learning disabilities.   

“We do not disagree that this is important work, but it has to be properly resourced.  

“We are very grateful to our Volunteer Village Agents like Catherine... and others across West Berkshire  who have done amazing selfless work in their communities over the years.

“If we could have continued to run it in the way that our experience told us is right for West Berkshire then we would have done just that.”

The statement added: “We advised the authority in October last year that we would not be bidding for the funds available as they were just too little.”

Although the Village Agents will be axed, West Berkshire Council has appointed Newbury’s Eight Bells for Mental Health to provide a scheme from April 1, 2020.  

Eight Bells for Community Strengths will support people across the district, helping individuals to access local services and groups and improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing.

The scheme will also support communities to set up new local initiatives and promote activity that will help them develop their social and community networks. This service will be for adults over the age of 18 in West Berkshire.

Co-chairwoman of the trustees of Eight Bells, Verity Murricane, said: “This is a very exciting opportunity.

“We look forward to extending the services that Eight Bells offer across the whole of the district and to working with people and organisations across West Berkshire to develop resilience and enhance lives in our communities.”

Executive member for public health and community wellbeing, Rick Jones (Con, Tilehurst & Purley) said: “We are delighted to have Eight Bells on board to do this important work, following on from the great work performed by the Volunteer Centre.

“It is vital that we continue to help build social and community networks by linking people together.

By working together, we can make real steps towards reducing social isolation and the issues that arise from that.”

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