UNION leaders have described plans to close five Darlington residential homes for the elderly as 'premature.'

Darlington Borough Council has decided the closure of the homes is necessary because it cannot afford the £4.5m needed to bring them up to standard.

It says none of the homes, Moorcroft, Gladstone Hall, Neville House, The Lawns and Westfields House, would meet new Government guidelines on council-owned residential properties.

Legislation coming into effect in April 2002 demands that local authority homes either modernise or face being closed.

But Unison, which represents dozens of people working in the five homes, believes the council is being too hasty.

Darlington branch secretary Alan Docherty said: "We think the council is being very premature in announcing the closures because these Government standards haven't even be finalised yet.

"We expect the Government will allow a transitional period even after 2002 and this would give the council more time to bring the homes up to standard."

Unison is also concerned about the impact the closures will have on the 125 staff at the homes.

The council has said some will be given other jobs within the council, but others are faced with the prospect of early retirement or redundancy.

Mr Docherty said: "Most staff still want to work for the council but there is a ring of hollowness about the plans it has for the staff.

"The council has a responsibility to re-deploy these people and we will pressure them to do this."

The closure of the homes will result in the 120 elderly people living there being transferred to private sector accommodation.

The council is hoping to minimise the effects on residents by staggering the closures and giving pensioners the option to move with their friends to private sector homes.

The authority has taken the decision because it says none of the homes would meet new Government guidelines on council-owned residential properties.

Darlington council's social affairs and health scrutiny committee discussed the proposals last week and they will now go to the cabinet on August 29, when councillors are expected to be recommended to approve the closures.