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1,500 oppose Freefield Centre closure

Pensionors protesting against the proposed closure of the Freefield Centre outside Lerwick town hall on the day of budget cuts, last month - Photo: Pete Bevington

A PETITION signed by around 1,500 people has been handed in to Shetland Islands Council opposing plans to close the popular meeting place for older people at Lerwick’s Freefield Centre.

The council had proposed shutting the centre as part of its huge budget cutting exercise, immediately arousing a protest from its users.

The petition comes as old and disabled folk aired concerns about another proposed saving that would see hot meals on wheels being replaced by frozen meals.

The Freefield Centre provides a cheap meal for £2.85 for the over 60s and the disabled five days a week.

It was earmarked for closure by officials seeking savings of more than £15 million next year, though at a council meeting on 9 February the decision was one of many put on hold.

Now it has emerged that a member of staff at the centre has been sent home after writing a letter to The Shetland Times complaining about the council’s attempts to close the centre, adding to the controversy surrounding one of the most high profile targets of the cuts.

The petition states that the centre is “ideal” for people going through rehabilitation, recovering from hospital treatment, and the physically and mentally the infirm.

It also acts as a meeting place for pensioners from all over the isles coming to Lerwick to shop or attend an appointment.

“Single pensioners and couples find having lunch at Freefield is excellent for them as most of them are living alone and benefit from the company and get involved in conversations with others, that in itself is a tonic and an uplift to the spirit within,” the petitioners state.

SIC convener Sandy Cluness said he was concerned about the potential closure of such a highly-valued asset. “I would like to think we could find some way of extending its use for a period,” he said.

The council will discuss the issue at its meeting next Wednesday, when the petition will either be noted or officials will be instructed to prepare a report.

Meanwhile the council has moved to reassure people who receive meals on wheels that plans to save hundreds of thousands of pounds by redesigning the service are not set in stone.

Doreen Williamson, who chairs the local branch of the Scottish Pensioners’ Association, said that many members had been in touch about the issue and that it was “a silly idea” to import frozen meals from the south of England for old folk in Shetland.

SIC social services committee chairman Cecil Smith said that if people could not cope with frozen meals they would not be forced upon them, but warned that savings would have to be found elsewhere.

Community care director Christine Ferguson said at the moment the average cost of an individual meal was £25 and hundreds of thousands of pounds could be saved from a service that currently costs more than £1 million a year.

However she told BBC Radio Shetland: “It is not a done deal that we will be getting provision from south and it would be very interesting to see if it can be done cheaper locally, that would certainly be of interest to us.”

She added that best value did not necessarily mean using the cheapest option and suggested that the current high standards of provision would not be lowered.