A NORTH-EAST council has been accused of targeting the elderly and vulnerable, as proposals emerged to close 13 of its 18 in-house day care centres.

Papers seen by The Northern Echo reveal Durham County Council chiefs are proposing to “decommission” the centres, which often provide much-needed companionship and support for people suffering through age or mental disability, as early as next March in an effort to save £1.59m by Spring 2017.

Critics say rural areas would be hardest hit – with Spennymoor the nearest surviving facility for the Dales.

Anne Armstrong, whose 76-year-old brother George Swindle visits Stanhope Pathways five days a week, said: “It’s been his life five days a week. It’s a damned shame. We’re going to have nothing left in Weardale.”

Independent councillor John Shuttleworth added: “It’s always the elderly and vulnerable that are picked on. The fat cats are still here but the young and old don’t matter.”

Council chiefs says 343 people would potentially see their service change. They have also warned of job losses, including compulsory redundancies – but refused to disclose numbers.

Services would continue at Stanley, Durham, Spennymoor, Newton Aycliffe and Peterlee Pathways, although the Peterlee service would be relocated.

The following units would be decommissioned between March and September 2016: Bracken Hill, Peterlee; Bede, Barnard Castle; GAP Gardens, Greencroft; Silver Street, Spennymoor; Annfield Plain Pathways; Proudfoot Pathways, Bishop Auckland; Crook Pathways; Chester-le-Street Pathways; Barnard Castle Pathways; Ebony Woodwork, Consett; Bishop Auckland Pathways; Consett Pathways; and Stanhope Pathways.

Consultation has begun and runs until Friday, September 4, with the council’s cabinet taking final decisions next January, although Cllr Shuttleworth said: “When they do a consultation they don’t listen to what anybody says.”

The authority, which faces funding cuts of more than £250m, has already shut leisure centres and residential care homes and cut libraries and home-to-school transport. Five day care centres were closed from 2012, to save £446,000.

Mrs Armstrong said her brother, a one-legged retired labourer who lives alone in Rookhope, upper Weardale and suffers from a mental disability, had been visiting Stanhope Pathways for 15 years.

The centre neighbours Newtown House, the former council-run care home which was controversially closed last autumn.

“It’s absolutely brilliant. They take them out, look after them; I couldn’t cope five days a week without it,” Mrs Armstrong said.

The council says people are turning away from traditional services in favour of those provided by charities or community groups.

Hence, the number of people using its day centres has fallen by 42 per cent in three years and nine facilities are running at less than half capacity.

The authority says its in-house services are often twice as expensive as those in the independent sector; and it spends twice the national average per person.

Jane Robinson, the council’s head of commissioning for children and adult services, said: “We are currently looking at options for the future of our adult day care services. However, no decisions have been made and we will not consider making any changes without first carrying out a full consultation with everyone who may be affected.”