Advice lifeline facing the axe

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A VITAL advice service that helps at least 7,500 people in Hartlepool each year could close after it failed to win a council contract.

Hartlepool Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), in Park Road, Hartlepool, is facing an uncertain future after its bid for £206,000 from Hartlepool Borough Council proved unsuccessful for the first time in its 73-year history.

The council for the first time tendered for groups to provide a financial advice and support service and it was won by West View Advice and Resource Centre.

Bureau chiefs say the cash was aimed to provide “core funding” that pays for vital running costs like staff, bills and providing key financial services like welfare, benefits and debt advice, money management, employment law and housing and homelessness advice.

But bosses say losing the cash leaves the service’s future in jeopardy and could see further services like consumer advice and housing and tenancy support services lost.

A meeting has been set up for April 23 when the bureau’s trust board will decide if it will close, or whether to look to struggle on with reduced services or try to merge with another service. If the lifeline service has to be wound down then 12 paid jobs will be lost, and 28 volunteers will have to go.

Today, Joe Michna, manager of the bureau – which saw over 22,000 clients making contact last year – described the news as “devastating”.

He said: “This is a devastating blow for the Hartlepool CAB as we relied on Hartlepool Borough Council for what we call our core funding, that is the funding, or rather the glue, that holds the hold organisation together. It pays for our central costs such as gas, electricity, water, key staff salaries, stationery, postage and such like. The irony is that the bureau has never been busier in its 73-year history of serving the residents of the town. On average, we deal with 45 completely new inquiries a day, plus all the ongoing inquiries and client cases we are already involved with.”

Council chiefs say they decided to tender for the grant for the first time due to government cuts and asked groups what they would charge to provide financial advice and support services.

Hartlepool Mayor Stuart Drummond said: “Government spending cuts have had a major impact on the council and we are no longer in a position to simply hand out grants to organisations. By commissioning a clearly-defined service, we are seeking to ensure that what money is available to us is used in the best possible way to meet the most pressing needs of local people.

“We invited tenders for the provision of a financial advice and support service and received two bids. Unfortunately, Hartlepool CAB was unsuccessful and a contract for the 2012-13 financial year was awarded to the West View Advice and Resource Centre. I can understand Hartlepool CAB’s disappointment. But it is important to stress that a financial advice and support service will continue to be provided to local people.”

The West View Advice and Resource Centre is based in the Community Centre, in Miers Avenue, but will be providing the outreach service at children’s centres and other venues across town.

Centre manager Val Evens said: “We are delighted to win the contract but not to the detriment of the Citizens Advice Bureau. We do hope to be able to do some partnership work with them in the future.”

The welfare benefit and money advice service, known as the Universal Welfare Benefits Service, is expected to start in the week commencing April 30. A full and part-time job have been advertised in relation to the contract.

Bosses at the West View Advice and Resource Centre, which has been established for 28 years, say there will be the equivalent of three full-time staff members providing the service.

For more information about the service, or to make an appointment, call (01429) 271275.