A few weeks ago, a meeting of Torridge District Council’s External Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which I chair, focused on mental health provision in Torridge and the potential impact of closing the Link Centres in Bideford, Barnstaple, and Ilfracombe. 

The meeting heard from representatives of Save Our Hospital Services (SOHS), the local police, and some of the service users. We understand that Devon County Council (DCC) had agreed on 13th Juneto keep these mental health hubs open until at least March 2024, awhile they review proposals to close them and launch a new consultation. 

At our committee, members raised serious concerns not only surrounding the potential closures of the centres, but also regarding current provision, in particular the closure of referral routes into the Link Centres and the need for the reinstatement of staff-led therapy sessions. We heard of the many changes that had been made to the centres, which had all been running successfully pre-COVID. For example, cuts have been made to opening hours, the ability to self-refer, Wellness Recovery Action Plans, and a wide range of activities from mindfulness and cooking to badminton and coach trips. There is now a need for provision to be fully reinstated. 

Service users spoke passionately about the need for a consistent service and highlighted the importance of having professional members of staff to deal with complex mental health needs. The suggestion by DCC that voluntary groups could provide alternatives to the Link Centres if they closed was regarded as irresponsible and inequitable. The users of the Link Centres feel they are being left in limbo, which is causing extra anxiety when what is needed is stability, a permanent safe space and long-term assurance that the service is here to stay.

We also heard from the neighbourhood inspector, about the new policy “Right care, right person”, and how the police would no longer be dealing directly with mental health issues and would instead be signposting them to the “right person”. They will only step in when lives are at immediate risk. There was also comment on the increases in A&E admissions due to mental health, intentional self-harm and suicide rates which are all higher than the national average.

During the meeting, committee members agreed to write to DCC leaders requesting that all the referral routes are re-opened and staff-led therapy groups reinstated, so people can get the help they desperately need, and service need can be properly demonstrated and analysed as part of the decision-making process. 

Committee members wanted to share their frustration and anger at the lack of attendance from DCC and partners to the various External Overview and Scrutiny meeting dates offered in recent months to discuss the matter. It was agreed to extend a formal invitation again to DCC to attend a future External Overview and Scrutiny Committee to discuss and consult on future plans for the Link Centres in northern Devon. I have therefore written to Devon County Council leader, John Hart, cabinet member James McInnes and senior officers, setting out the issues identified. 

Sadly, mental health provision is often the first area which loses out when budgets are tight and too many people are unable to access the help and treatment they need. Liberal Democrats are fighting for a fair deal where mental and physical health are treated equally.

Councillor Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin

Chair of external overview and scrutiny, Torridge District Council