Elderly and sick residents living in sheltered accommodation got an early Christmas present from Salix Homes, when a voting form arrived with options on service charges that are going to be massively increased from April.
They were absolutely staggered to discover that one of the options, Option 2b, proposed a cost of £20.36 per week for those on housing benefit. For those not on housing benefit the charge would be £32 a week for `support as you receive it now' with one support officer for each housing scheme.
Other options ranged from a minimum of £5.07 per week for those on housing benefit (£15.68 for those not on housing benefit) for a basic Care On Call service, to £16.88 per week if on housing benefit (£27.49 if not) for `support as you receive it now' with shared support officers.
If around 25% of those who voted agreed with an option, every one of the 330 residents would have to pay the increases, whether they use the services or not.
Votes were to be cast this week but furious residents and their families immediately launched a petition claiming the consultation was inappropriate, the time period was inadequate, that other options were ignored and that the level of charges was too high.
Yesterday morning residents who could get there took the protest direct to Salix HQ at Diamond House, with placards denouncing possible evictions, a sham consultation, the `unfair tax' and calling for the vote to be stopped.
"I'm disabled and do have care but I won't be able to afford it" said Christine from Heraldic Court who has multiple sclerosis "I'm on ESA, which is only like job seekers allowance; where am I going to find £80 from? They said `Well we could find you somewhere else to live' but I can only move into another sheltered housing scheme because of my disabilities so I'm going to have to find the same money.
"What am I going to do?" she asked "I'm going to miss food bills, electric bills, or knock my care off. Plus, everyone's been called in for this PIP; my disability allowance could get reduced to nothing. How am I going to pay all this? I'm going to have to go on the streets at 62..."
"I feel we've been very unfairly treated by Salix and have not been given the right information" she added "It's affecting everybody. I spoke to an elderly lady who lives at Heraldic Court and she was nearly crying. She said `I don't know what I'm doing, I'm so worried'..."
Christine's sister, Doreen, who also lives at Heraldic Court, doesn't use any of the services she will be forced to pay for, and explained that there was total confusion about information Salix reps presented when they spoke to residents before the voting slips were sent out...
"We thought they were asking what services we wanted, not what everybody else wants" she said "People don't understand. A woman in our court is 86 and she doesn't know what's going on. We feel we're being pressurised and it's making us all ill. And to have to make a decision like this just before Christmas is unbelievable. They've got a lot to answer for..."
She added that she could face a £15 a week rise in charges, and was told by a Salix rep that if she didn't like the increase she could find housing elsewhere.
Linda, who lives at Longbow Court told the Salford Star that she'd already had her disability payments cut by £70 a week... "To get this on top, I just can't afford the big prices" she said "I think it's disgusting. They're supposed to be helping the elderly, people with dementia and schizophrenic people...but they're not because of all these cuts."
Paul from Muirhead Court told the Star he was living in sheltered accommodation as he suffered from severe depression actually brought on by financial problems and debt. That was over five years ago. Now he feels those problems will come back to haunt him...
"This is now going to re-emerge, I'll be taking more anti-depressant pills" he said "It could be a cost me anywhere between £12 or £13 a week, up to £19 per week, depending on the vote. I'm on benefits, I can't afford it. I will have to reduce my food spending per week to accommodate it. They should stop the vote."
First around a dozen people demonstrated outside the Salix HQ and then proceeded to occupy the company's reception area before Salix staff offered an immediate peace meeting.
They were told in no uncertain terms that residents considered the increased charges a back door rent increase, and that the Salix statement of offering to find people who objected to the increases was perceived as a threat... "If we get into rent arrears we will be put at risk of being homeless" said one resident.
Graham Cooper, whose grandmother lives at Heraldic Court and has dementia, added that options more valid to people's financial circumstances should be considered, like residents and families taking over some of the services themselves, or setting up social enterprises to run the schemes.
He explained that residents needed independent advice on the legality of the charges... "We want the vote stopped for now" he said, adding that the protests would go on every week until the matter was resolved.
Responding, in the meeting taped by residents, Salix chief executive officer, Lee Sugden, blamed the charge increase on a £250,000 cut to the Supporting People grant from Salford City Council, enforced by Government cuts...
"I do appreciate that having sight of what the service costs can take people by surprise, I get that" he said, adding "We do need to start recovering costs of a service...We don't want anything else other than to cover those costs."
Sugden apologised on behalf of Salix to those residents who had been told that if they didn't like the increased charges they could find `alternative accommodation'...
"No-one wants to kick anyone out, we want happy smiley communities; we want people growing old and having fun" he added "This is about people having to pay for the services they receive. It was always going to be a challenge and that's why we are talking to people to develop as many options as possible that can meet the broadest majority needs."
After a short break to consider the way forward, the Salix chief exec agreed that votes being cast until 23rd December would only count as a consultation; that in the new year independent advice for tenants, possibly by Age UK, would be sought, and that a `revised' set of options would be presented for a ballot in February.
After the meeting, Paul from Muirhead Court said it felt like a victory, certainly a relief... "They've extended the consultation and it gives people more opportunity to come up with things that they haven't thought of before" he said
Meanwhile, Graham Cooper, was also pleased that the protest had forced Salix to back down from imposing the vote...
"I'm glad we've done this" he said "It's brought to people's attention what's going on. But more importantly they've taken people seriously which I didn't think Salix would do. I think we have to go to Salford Council next and ask them questions of what's going on as they are the ones who retracted the funding. It was a good meeting, they listened to what we had to say and that's about valuing people who have been living in this city a long time..."
Two nights before the protest Christine and Doreen were sat talking to the Salford Star in an eerie community room at Heraldic Court that had one miserable looking Christmas tree in the corner.
"Everyone's on a downer" said Christine "There's not a decoration up in here. Usually by now we've got all the decorations up, music going, but there's just that tree..."
Her sister Doreen added: "We don't even know whether we'll have a party. We used to have things on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year but this year we've got nothing. And then they go and land this on us..."
Yesterday Doreen, Christine and others came away from Salix HQ with their heads held high in the knowledge that people power had some influence; that Salford's sick and elderly have still got a voice and won't be walked over in the race to cut services from those who need them most. It's most definitely time for that party!
The Salford Star asked Salix Homes for an official comment but the company did not respond.
• Meanwhile, over in Little Hulton and Walkden, City West Housing has already imposed increased charges without even a vote. The Salford Star has interviewed some of those who are faced with the new service charges, including an eighty four year old man in sheltered housing who no longer puts his heating on during the day – to read the full story click here