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September 7, 2011

A Right to Try

As the Localism Bill winds its way through the committee stages of Westminster, there’s been a growing interest in establishing a Community Right to Try. This would give communities an opportunity to explore the options for taking over a council service before it gets the chop. As Councils become ever more desperate to find savings, this could become a vital safeguard in future. It would certainly have saved one group of Ross-shire parents a lot of heartache


PARENTS of disabled users of a popular Ross-shire day centre are to urge Highland Council to let them buy out the axe-threatened minibuses so their relatives can travel in safety.

Families are horrified that the council seems intent on withdrawing the two special minibuses serving the Isobel Rhind Centre in Invergordon and leaving the vulnerable users to take taxis and public buses. Parents say their adult children, some of whom have profound learning difficulties and cannot communicate, could not cope with taxis and fear for their safety and wellbeing. 

But Easter Ross Highland councillor Maxine Smith, who held a meeting with worried parents in Alness on Saturday, says she is now going to press the council to show compassion towards the families and agree to buy out the leases on the buses. Cllr Smith said: “I am going to push the council to buy out the leases for the minibuses and hand them over to the parents who will form their own group to take forward a community transport scheme.  Sheila Fletcher of the Community Transport Association, who attended the meeting on Saturday and who is an expert on this, will assist them. Parents would set up their own transport group and they would be in charge of it, and pay towards the costs.”

“This is the least the council can do after putting people through such stress and distressing users of the Isobel Rhind Centre in this way.  I am appalled by some of the stories I have heard. The council seem to be forgetting that these people are all highly vulnerable and children at heart and they cannot cope with massive changes like this, as it threatens their security and wellbeing.”

The meeting heard of one account of a special needs user from Ross-shire who had been asked by the council to take a taxi for a trial period. On several occasions she had been extremely stressed and had soiled the taxi, causing her trauma.

“This was really upsetting for the whole group to hear,” said Cllr Smith. “It’s unacceptable that things like this are happening. You have to deal with this issue sensitively.”

Mike Cubitt of Lamington near Tain, whose son Alasdair (40) attends the Isobel Rhind Centre, said: “If we could get our own transport group up and running, then I would be fine with it. We said all along that we would be prepared to pitch in and help pay a realistic amount towards transport, recognising Alasdair’s income for transport. I think all the parents have said that. But it has to be a safe form of transport. A Right to Try

It seems to be a classic case of the council picking people off one by one and cajoling them into accepting different forms of transport, which are not appropriate. There’s no consistency about any of it.”

Mr Cubitt added: “We don’t want to end up with the number of people attending the Isobel Rhind Centre reducing so that the council can then close it. That’s what we’re all frightened of.”

Rhoda Fraser from Newmore has a 38-year-old daughter who attends the Isobel Rhind Centre five days a week.

She said: “It was a very good, helpful meeting organised by Maxine Smith and the plan that was put forward seems excellent.

“It is obvious that come hell or high water the council wants to remove these buses, but we can’t let them do that because people need to be able to get their relatives to the centre safely.

“We hear all about letting people with special needs be part of the community but my daughter is not capable of being out in the community. She has profound learning disabilities and is epileptic as well. I could not allow her to go in a taxi with someone she didn’t know, even for a short journey.”

Community Transport Association network development officer Sheila Fletcher said she had been “shocked” by accounts told at the meeting by the relatives of people attending the Isobel Rhind Centre.

And she revealed that she had offered the transport solution she proposed on Saturday to social workers in recent months, yet none of the relatives at the meeting had been aware of it.

She said there was precedence for such a system, as something similar had previously been done as part of the transfer to the community of the running of the Assynt Centre in Lochinver. 

Dingwall woman Mary Watt, who has fundraised for the Isobel Rhind Centre in the past, has raised a 2,000-signature petition to retain the transport for users. She and other campaigners plan to hand it over to the council shortly.

Mrs Watt has also alerted MP Charles Kennedy to the parents’ plight and he has taken up the matter with the council.

A council spokeswoman said: “The council has been supporting families and local groups to put new arrangements in place, including community transport solutions. 

“We welcome this proposal, which has indeed come up before, and which we have been exploring further. We shall continue to discuss it with the various parties.”