Anger as plans submitted to turn Highgate mental health centre into private flats

The Highgate Centre, Highgate Road

The Highgate Centre, Highgate Road - Credit: Archant

Vulnerable service users at a mental health day centre have expressed anger after plans were submitted to Camden Council to sell the building to a developer to transform into private flats and office space.

While proposals for the sale of the Highgate Day Centre have been in the offing for some time, mentally ill service users have told the Ham&High they are “in absolute despair” about the “decimation” of the facility - once considered the jewel in the crown of mental health provision in the borough.

The planning application from Fortnum Developments Ltd will transform the council-owned centre in Highgate Road together with the neighbouring A&A Storage building into 52 private homes for sale and eight council-run assisted living units as well as space for offices, storage and social enterprise including a cafe.

The Highgate Day Centre, which is managed by Camden and Islington Health Trust, will effectively cease to exist - although a new mental health facility, the Greenwood Centre, is planned to open in 2018.

But Tony Fisher, a service user and vocal spokesman on behalf of mentally ill people in Camden, said the loss of the “unique” day centre comes as a cruel blow.

He said: “It’s not a surprise at all, because anyone with half a brain could see what they were up to.

“The plan was clearly to undermine the service, slash its funding, say ‘look, this is not working, nobody is coming here anymore,’ so that when the time came to flog it off, there would be less of a public outcry.

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“They seem to think that mentally ill people are stupid, but we see straight through them.

“Let’s do the maths - 52 private flats in that part of town - what are they going to be sold for? Half a million quid each? And the mentally ill people of Camden can go and hang themselves, for all the council care.”

A former service user, Jeff Mann, took his life in 2015 within two weeks of being told his “associate membership” at the centre was set to end - which a coroner ruled was “a significant contributing factor” into his death.

For decades, the centre provided therapeutic services for those recovering from serious mental illness, allowing people to access the classes and support when they were no longer considered “acutely” ill or at risk.

The funding to the centre from the council was halved from £270,000 to £130,000 in 2015 and associate membership ended following clinical reports that ongoing attendance created a “dependency culture”.

But a former employee at the centre, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “The claim that it created dependency was highly disingenuous. The fact is, for many years, the facility worked very well, gave people the support they needed and helped them to recover. I have no doubt whatsoever that it saved many lives.

“I have no idea how Greenwood will work, but no, I don’t think it will be the same - or anything like it.

“I feel desperately sorry for the service users, who I believe are in total despair because of the need for the council to raise money.”

Cllr Phil Jones, Camden’s planning chief, said: “In an environment where the government provides little or no financial support for new amenities in Camden, the council is aiming to deliver these wide-ranging benefits on a self-funded basis.

“All proceeds from the development agreement with Fortnum Developments Ltd will be reinvested in the scheme to ensure we are delivering the very best for local people.”

The council will manage the eight social homes and said it expects to receive a capital receipt and a share of proceeds once the private flats are sold on the open market.

Proceeds from the sale of the centre will contribute to the funding of the new Greenwood Centre as part of the council’s Community Investment Programme (CIP).

The council said in a statement: “This will reduce reliance and cost burden on traditional day care services and will, in turn, promote independence and enable people to play a far more active role in their community.”