Disabled factory staff jobless as council votes to close Dorset Enterprises
A Dorset garden furniture factory which employs people with disabilities is to close, following a council decision to withdraw funding.
Dorset Enterprises, which produces deckchairs for councils with beachfronts and luggage racks for hotels, will close at the end of March, leaving 23 employees – 19 of whom have disabilities – out of work.
The closure comes after Bournemouth Borough Council (BBC) last night voted unanimously to withdraw funding. The council has been subsidising the factory to the tune of around £500,000 each year.
Most of the disabled members of staff currently employed at the Elliott Road factory have worked there for around 20 years, and some for as many as 43.
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Paul White, who has managed the factory for the past 12 years, told This is Dorset: “Obviously it’s a great disappointment for all concerned. The staff here being people with disabilities, they’re going to find it very difficult to find other employment, especially in the current economic climate.
“The council has said that they will seek further expressions of interest in a takeover of the facility by organisations who are going to do something in the disability employment field to see what will occur from that.
“So there’s still some hope that at least some bits can be saved, but as far as we are concerned we lock the doors on March 31.”
Mr White explained while the potential closure of the factory had been discussed in the past, the news came as a shock. “We were first told that we were being considered for possible closure two years ago, and it has been dragging on and on,” he said.
“It’s suddenly come to a decision being made.”
Mr White said despite this, he understood why the council had taken the decision: “We have to see the reasoning behind it because central government has been reducing funds to councils and councils have had to respond by closing things,” he said.
“In Bournemouth we have had a number of day centres closing already. So we say ‘if it is not us it would have to be someone else’.”
Dorset Enterprises has a long history of employing people with disabilities, dating back almost a century. In 1914, Bournemouth councillor Amy Smith set up a workshop for limbless ex-servicemen, in a bid to provide employment for those returning from World War I.
Dorset Enterprises produced wooden Post Office ladders until the 1990s, when the Post Office switched to aluminium ladders. Since then toys have been made on-site, but more recently the factory has primarily manufactured deckchairs and garden furniture.
The factory has struggled to expand its product range amid competition from overseas. According to Bournemouth Borough Council, losses over the past seven years total £3.4million.
Labour councillor Dennis Gritt said he was disappointed and frustrated by the decision to close the factory: “It’s sad news for the caring attitude of people nowadays,” he said.
“Obviously everyone has got to save money, but we are hitting people that cannot hit back or defend themselves in the same way as maybe some other industries can.
“I went there last year and found it was a fantastic environment, with the equipment and facilities that disabled people need. I don’t think you will see anything like this set up again”.
Cllr Gritt added: “I feel so sorry for them [the employees]. These are people who have given decades of their lives”.
The factory was passed to Bournemouth Borough Council by Dorset County Council several years ago. Reflecting on the handover, Cllr Gritt said: “We took this over from Dorset and we did not honour that taking over. I’m very, very sad about the situation.
“They [BBC] allowed Dorset Enterprises to operate at a loss as a result of neglect. I think it’s saveable, but you will need someone who is dynamic in sales and marketing.
“The council ought to search very deeply their conscience and their pockets.”
Councillor Blair Crawford, portfolio holder for Adult Social Care, said: “It is regrettable that a viable solution has not been available to keep the Dorset Enterprises factory open, but the losses are just too great to keep this facility going in its current form.
“Similar supported employment factories across the UK have closed over recent months for the same reasons.
“However, the council remains committed to supporting adults with disabilities to gain or retain paid or voluntary employment, which is why we are seeking one or more partner organisations to take on the site and start a new enterprise, or even a range of business opportunities, offering supported employment.
“In the meantime staff affected by these changes will be given our fullest support in finding alternative employment options.”
In response, Cllr Gritt said: “I think it’s just words quite frankly”.
Cllr Gritt suggested instead of closing the factory, money could be saved from councillor expenses, or some of the profit made by the crematorium used to support Dorset Enterprises.