Successful advice service can't cope with public demand

Venue: Hoyland library hosts public advice sessions where demand outstrips availability.
Venue: Hoyland library hosts public advice sessions where demand outstrips availability.
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An advice service launched four years ago for residents in the south of Barnsley has become a victim of its own success with councillors now forced to look at ways to meet an increasing demand.

The service was launched by Barnsley Council’s South Area Council in 2014 to cover an area taking in the communities of Birdwell, Hoyland, Wombwell, Darfield and surrounding villages and was initially operated with a combination of council and Citizens Advice Bureau staff.

Since last year it has been run solely by the CAB, but their workers have found demand from residents has been outstripping the time they have to deal with queries.

CAB officials have been working with council staff to try to find solutions and councillors are now to consider a range of options, which would cost between £1,000 and £5,000 a year to put in place.

Options they have identified include using a legal apprentice to deal with the less demanding queries, while allowing the experienced advisers to focus on the more complex cases.

It could also be possible to get additional staff working, so another weekly session could be established in Hoyland, where demand is at its greatest.

The sessions are organised on a ‘drop-in’ basis at present, but the weight of numbers wanting help have seen up to 17 in the queue when advisors have arrived to start a session, which is far too many to deal with.

Another option would be to use an appointments system, but experience elsewhere has shown up to 30 per cent of clients fail to turn up for their meetings, meaning slots are effectively lost.

Members of the South Area Panel are to consider the options when they next meet in June.

They were told by CAB’s David Andy that in the nine months since the last contract started, they had helped 900 people in the district, over a target of 714.

“We are 200 up in that short time,” he said.

“We have assisted 484 vulnerable clients, using the council’s definition of a person who needs face to face support and is unable to access, or has no support for, other forms of contact.

“A large number of clients, if we were not here, would see nobody and would be lost out there in the wilderness.”

The team of advisors have helped people gain £732,000 in benefit payments, over a target of £390,000 and also to deal with large debt burdens.

The ‘return’ on every £1 spent is currently just over £12, which is down slightly on figures recorded previously, but councillors were told still represents good value for their investment.

If a decision is taken to extend sessions, it would mean finding suitable rooms available for advisors to use. In Hoyland the currently use the library.