No support in sight after charity announces closures

PUBLISHED: 08:36 06 February 2020 | UPDATED: 08:50 06 February 2020

Photo: ANDRA MACIUCA/ARCHANT.

Photo: ANDRA MACIUCA/ARCHANT.

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"It has become a business, not a charity", said an upset volunteer.

Photo: ANDRA MACIUCA/ARCHANT.Photo: ANDRA MACIUCA/ARCHANT.

Support 4 Sight, a charity that supports blind and partially-sighted people, announced it will be closing and relocating from its existing premises in the next two weeks.

The charity has been operating in Saffron Walden since 1994, and from its 2-4 George Street headquarters since 2007 - but says it is no longer "sustainable" to keep its location.

The Reporter spoke to the chief executive and a spokeswoman for the charity, and found that all the equipment will be moved to the other Walden-based site at 8 Hill Street - also due for closure in October unless trustees decide otherwise.

Gary Hyams, Chief Executive of Support 4 Sight, said: "The charity is a business and it needs income. In the last two to three years, the country has been going through austerity. This has caused us financial difficulties and we have been living on our reserves. That is a situation that can't continue forever. The trustees of the organisation have made a decision in order for the charity to survive and provide services for those who need it the most."

A man who did not want to be named raised the issue that the charity recently underwent refurbishments and opened a café - which, from his point of view, means that the charity is, in fact, closing because of mismanagement, since the investment could have been directed towards better things.

But Mr Hyams responded to the accusations saying that the closure is caused by grants worth ten times less than a few years ago.

He said: "The place was getting old and needed refurbishing. The idea of putting the café in was to increase our income. All of our income comes from foundations and trustees. In previous years, we were getting £5,000-£10,000 of grants, now it tends to be £500-£1,000."

Mr Hyams added that Support 4 Sight started seeking talks with the Essex County Council and the Uttlesford District Council to resolve the situation, and that the county council has already started talking to the Saffron Walden library to see if they can accommodate the charity's activity.

"It is essential that we spend our money on running as many services as we can.

"In the short term, it may have a negative impact on the people who were coming in here but in the long term we will let them know about the options that are available," the chief executive said.

The charity's head office is due to relocate to its centre in Cottage Place, Chelmsford - leading to redundancies among the six staff members operating at the Saffron Walden premises. Its representatives say support and all services for the people in Uttlesford will still be available from the Chelmsford headquarters, and that there will be a pop-up resource centre at the coffee mornings.

Currently, coffee mornings in Saffron Walden are on the last Tuesday of every month between 10.30-12.00 at The Bowls Club, Abbey Lane, CB10 1DG. The ones in Great Dunmow are on the second Thursday of the month between 10.30 and 12.00 at Banks Court, Chequers Lane, CM6 1UD.

Cheryl Sugarman, spokeswoman for Support 4 Sight, said: "Grants are becoming more and more difficult in this age of austerity, we are facing budget constraints and it made a more viable change to move to Chelmsford.

"Grants are received from local councils, community funding projects. They get a pot and that money has been reduced but if you want to trail it back you can trail it back to the government."

The Reporter attempted to attend an extraordinary meeting held by Support 4 Sight at the Saffron Walden Town Hall on Tuesday, February 4 from 2pm, but was prompted to leave. The reason given was that the meeting was dedicated to volunteers only.

But a volunteer who attended the meeting said: "There was no one to speak for the people with loss of sight, so how do they know?

"People from in and around Saffron Walden have nowhere to go, there isn't a reference point locally. There is a lot of despair.

"There were suggestions that there will be a monthly tea morning, they don't know when or where. No one believes that they know what services can be kept. Saffron Walden was open five days a week, we now have Chelmsford with two days a week with two people, it's doomed to fail.

"I feel sorry for the people who lost their jobs, I am a volunteer so my life doesn't depend on it.

"There will not be a charity like that in the town because it has become a business and it no longer feels like a charity."

A man, who had a long connection with Support 4 Sight services, said: "I'm concerned about the future of Uttlesford Talking News, which was a stand-alone organisation but which was absorbed into S4S only two years or so ago. There was no warning that S4S was in trouble. Its latest accounts, just lodged with the Charity Commission, don't contain any hints of concern from the trustees or the independent accountant."

In the last year, over 6,000 people were served by the charity all over Essex.

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