We must learn from the Brushwood and Millvina fiasco

We must use learning from the Brushwood and Millvina fiasco to set up a new way or working with the families of the elderly and looked at ways in which we can build a community led response to ageing.

When I heard a couple of weeks ago that it looked as though a contract was likely to be signed within days to preserve the future of Brushwood and Millvina Houses I was delighted. I was even more delighted when the news came though publicly about the new contract and I was able to talk to some of the families involved about that decision.

However, although we should be pleased at the decision, I believe it is vital that we review the past 9 months of torture for residents and their families and look at what went wrong. Everyone, definitely including me, makes mistakes. The most important question is, “what do we learn from them to ensure that they do not happen again”.

I have no doubt that these homes would have been closed for their current purpose if there had not been a huge outcry from the families involved and the wider Liverpool community. I attended three of the events outside the Homes and was privileged to be asked to speak at two of them. I was joined by Cllr Kris Brown, Cllr Mirna Juarez and Cllr Barbara Mace. I saw the implacable commitment that the community of relatives had to protect their loved ones. For many of the people who would have been moved would have died very quickly. People with dementia need routine and to be surrounded by familiar people and familiar sites.

I believe that the default position for the Council in these circumstances from the very first day that the contractors told them that they would withdraw from the contract should have been, “How do we keep these residential homes open?” But it wasn’t. Within two days of receiving the news Council spokespersons were on the media saying how the closure would be handled well and in a caring fashion.

Two months of media campaigning later and the situation changed. People like Lyn Staunton and the much loved and missed John Foley simply declared war on the Council who failed to meet the families in a responsible and caring manner. In the end the Mayor sent Cllr Ian Byrne MP with a message to one of the public meetings. “It’s alright there will be no closure”.

I don’t know whether the Council had a plan B for using the buildings for tourism given their locations close to the LFC ground and the airport. I suspect not. I do know, however, that they were looking at other social care uses for the buildings for which we would still need to meet finance, security, maintenance and insurance costs if we kept them closed.

Only after did the announcement did they actually start to do what they should have done from day one and look for another contractor to take over these blocks.

I believe that the Council has made three major mistakes in the way that it has handled the implementation of these issues. I think that the decision to build these blocks and the high specification to which they are being built was exactly the right thing to do. In fact, I used details of the project and some of their graphics in speeches I made as national health spokesperson at the Local Government Association. The speeches started, of course, with me saying, “I know it’s a Labour Council but they are doing absolutely the right thing!”

The first mistake must have been in the original procurement process. How good was it when it came up with a company that had to throw in the towel within 9 months?  Why didn’t we find through the process the companies that came forward over the autumn with a tried and trusted capacity that could deliver to the agreed budget?

Secondly, it looked at the financial costs of making a decision last summer before it looked at the human cost. Money is important. We haven’t got enough of it so we must use what we have got carefully indeed. The human costs of some things are always incalculable. It may be that there was no way to make viable the model that Labour had chosen to use. But closure should have been the very last option to be considered and not the very first.

Lastly, the second of these was compounded by the lack of respect shown to the families of those involved. These were not an inarticulate rabble. They were concerned people who knew the difficulties of decisions that needed to be made and wanted to be part of that process and not brushed aside until they became so powerful that they could no longer be ignored.

So, how do we make sure that similar situations never arise again?

The boring but crucial bit is to ensure that procurement is handled better. The business model of the chosen contractor should have been tested and tested again. Even before that what were the operating models and costings that the Council used when they decided to build the care homes and what were the financial assumptions against which they tested the tenders from the private sector contractors.

Behind that is the greater problem that the Council, and all Councils and he Government now face. How do they plan for a future in which more and more of us will live longer and longer but often with increased mental and physical needs?

I think that we can go some way towards resolving this big issue in Liverpool by establishing a review group led by the people who came forward because they were individual carers to look know from their wider knowledge to look at the needs of all of our elderly population and the people who care for and love them?

I hope that people like Lyn Staunton and the people she worked with will come together to provide permanent challenges to the Council to look properly at the long -term implications of ageing. It’s quite clear that the Council do not have all the answers to the ageing issues. I am absolutely convinced, however, that if it started up a good debate and discussion about these issues with the Liverpool community then better policies and practices will evolve.

In the Brushwood and Millvina action group members we have a strong group of intelligent and thoughtful people with a clear ability to communicate. If they were to take up this challenge of working with the Council, I would be the first person knocking at their door to listen to them.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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