'Callous' care cuts blamed after bodies left rotting in retirement properties for months
PUBLISHED: 07:30 21 August 2019 | UPDATED: 08:00 21 August 2019
Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk
Two dead bodies are claimed to have lain undiscovered in a retirement scheme for months, sparking complaints about "callous" cuts to care support.
Neighbours have urged Suffolk County Council to reinstate funding for wardens and sheltered accommodation following the tragedies at Mussidan Place in Woodbridge, which is owned by Flagship Housing.
The latest body was found on August 8 after a neighbour noticed the man's kitchen was infested with flies. Residents believe he had lain there since June, when they first complained about a bad smell. They said they were shocked by the death - but it was not the first to go unnoticed.
Another body was found in February. Neighbours said the dead man's relative told them it had been there since November last year. They said the bodies would have been found sooner if not for budget cuts stripping away wardens who used to check up on residents.
Valerie Kersey, 74, said: "There's been a lot of reaction since the latest death. You feel guilty, thinking you should have noticed, and you feel angry. It shouldn't happen. We've been through it twice now."
The cuts to sheltered housing support sparked complaints from tenants across the county when they came into force in 2018.
SCC said it had given providers, including Flagship, advanced notice of the cuts so they could consider other ways to offer support. Flagship said residents' safety was paramount but it had to remove the service when the council cut the funding for it.
Sylvia Keeble, who was a warden for 35 years, said there were 17 sheltered schemes in Suffolk Coastal when she started - all of which had live-in staff.
"Gradually, over the years, they started to get rid of us," she said. "We had cutback after cutback until there were just four staff managing 15 shelter schemes."
Mussidan Place and other sheltered schemes have since been reclassified as "retirement housing". But Mrs Keeble said many residents still needed support. "Lots of people are elderly, some of them in their 90s," she added. "When they came there was a lot of support, now there's nothing. Residents were devastated when we were gone - we were their lifeline.
"It's terrible to think of people left to die on their own, and no one finding them."
Flagship, which made record profits of £33.1m last year, stopped providing sheltered support in 2016. Orwell Housing stepped in with a reduced service, which saw wardens phone round residents each morning and visit if needed. The services stopped completely in April 2018.
Flagship said a "pull cord alarm system" remained in place for communal areas - and residents could buy individual alarms.
But residents claim even these are unreliable. Clive Field, 78, said the cord was supposed to contact a call centre but it could take 20 minutes to get through. Mr Field said residents had sought improvements from Flagship, but often struggled to reach anyone.
"There's never anyone on the phone," he said. "I've only been here four years and in that time so many things have been dropped."
Trevor Rose, 70, said Flagship failed to respond to complaints about the buildings and had not reassured people after the death.
Woodbridge mayor Eamonn O'Nolan attended as a first responder when the latest body was discovered and met again with residents recently.
"I'm quite frankly horrified that their essential support services have been reduced to zero, in a cold and callous way," he said.
"Two elderly residents have died and their bodies lay undiscovered for weeks and months while their neighbours and the authorities were in complete ignorance of their deaths, even though they were lying only a hundred yards from the Shire Hall. There is no doubt that had Mussidan Place still had a warden, then at least the bodies would have been discovered immediately."
Mr O'Nolan said the deaths were tragic and should come as a "serious wake-up call for us all". "It is clear to me SCC's social services department is not doing its job," he added.
He has sought a meeting with Flagship and council chiefs.
Helen Armitage, Labour's adult care spokesman at SCC said she was "saddened and appalled" by the failings in social care.
"Residents move into sheltered accommodation because they need additional support and security - support and security that regular warden visits used to provide," she said. "Since the Conservatives at SCC have cut their funding, housing associations been unable to plug the gap and have been forced to reduce their services."
Council: We told housing providers about the cuts
Suffolk County Council said sheltered housing providers had been informed of the proposals to remove funding two years before they came into force.
A spokesman for the council said Flagship and Orwell Housing were both told about the budget changes in 2016.
"This was to provide an opportunity for the providers to develop options on how they may choose to provide support when the grant expired at the end of the 2017/18 financial year," the spokesman added. "Suffolk County Council publishes its proposed budget and any changes to funding are in the public domain. Suffolk County Council is committed to working alongside providers of care and support to deliver quality services to residents across Suffolk."
The council allocated £234m for adult and community services in 2019/20 - which accounts for almost half of its total £500m budget for the year. It has cut £260m from its overall budget since 2011.
Residents' safety is 'paramount'
Flagship Housing said the removal of support was due to funding cuts - but the safety of residents was still "paramount".
Sam Greenacre, head of housing at Flagship, said: "Our thoughts go out to the friends and family of our customer at this difficult time.
"Suffolk County Council contracted directly with care service providers. The changes in the support services previously provided are due to the funding cuts. For eligible customers this was approximately £156 per year. Suffolk County Council continues to provide personal care packages where required."
Mr Greenacre said Flagship managed 672 properties at 22 schemes which are let to customers older than 55.
"The welfare and safety of our customers' environment is paramount," he added. "We take steps to ensure the safety of our customers at these schemes, attending weekly to check communal and external spaces are safe."