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Fundraisers in Whitstable battle to keep care home in local hands

Bosses are fighting controversial plans by a national charity to wrest control of a care home and reserves of £750,000 given by grateful residents and their families.

St John Home in Gloucester Road, Whitstable, is at the centre of a long-running local v central battle that could go as far as the House of Commons.

As reported in the Whitstable Gazette last week, Whitstable MP Julian Brazier and Herne Bay MP Sir Roger Gale have complained about the situation to the Charity Commission and may seek a Parliamentary debate.

The St John home in Gloucester Road, Whitstable
The St John home in Gloucester Road, Whitstable

The highly-regarded home, founded by four Whitstable women in 1947, cares for 18 residents, providing their daily and nursing needs. It is the only care home operated by St John Ambulance. Plans by the charity would see control pass to the national organisation in London and the regional headquarters in Aylesbury.

The care home has always been controlled in Whitstable, with a local committee of experts – some from outside the area – looking after its management and finances.

Over the years, it has built up funds of £750,000, mainly from donations and legacies.

These earn about £30,000 in interest every year, a sum that bridges the gap between the cost of running the home and income from residents and Kent County Council.

Michael Hardcastle, chairman of the management committee for the St John home in Gloucester Road, Whitstable
Michael Hardcastle, chairman of the management committee for the St John home in Gloucester Road, Whitstable

But the home has become embroiled in a major so-called “transformation” of St John Ambulance nationally to address a deepening financial crisis.

The strategy got rid of county organisation, including Kent which was regarded as one of the charity’s most successful regions.

Scores of staff lost their jobs, including former Kent chief executive Vanessa Hannan.

Senior national representatives of St John have disputed local claims that the reserves are “restricted” because they were given for the specific purpose of helping the home.

Management committee chairman Michael Hardcastle has been at the forefront of the battle, and has been in regular contact with senior St John representatives.

He told the Gazette in an exclusive interview that headquarters had consistently misled the committee by giving assurances about the home and its finances and then changing their tune.

“It’s been appalling,” he said. “An 18-bed home is too small to be financially viable as a standalone home but because of the generosity of families over the years, we have £750,000 of reserves.

“The investment income from that bridges the gap between solvency and insolvency.”

He added: “Our portfolio is fully realised in support of the home and if it were appropriated, we would have to make good the shortfall either by raising our charges or making an appeal for funds from our supporters. I can only imagine the likely reaction as to why it had arisen.”

He is worried that if the home is run centrally, there may be a temptation – despite assurances – to close it altogether.

If the home was transferred to another organisation, it would immediately lose this status and the new operators would be free to shut or sell the home, perhaps for redevelopment.

There has also been a dispute over the main purpose of St John, with one senior representative claiming it was to “save lives through First Aid,” while another said it was for “the relief of suffering”.

Mr Hardcastle accused them of “sheer ignorance,” adding: “We want this home to be run as it has been since 1947.”

St John Ambulance spokesman Bijal Patel said: “Our first concern is for the residents and staff at the home.

“We are committed to making sure they are supported, financially and using the breadth of St John Ambulance’s expertise. Mr Hardcastle knows this but he chooses to ignore it.

“There is no takeover. The home is already part of St John and we want it to be supported by the full strength of the rest of St John Ambulance so that it benefits from our clinical, HR and other structures.

“We do this to meet the requirements of modern regulations and for the welfare of those we care for.

“To talk about an investment income is misleading because we are committed to supporting the home financially.

“We continue to work with local supporters so that the home benefits from their input too.”

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