£370,000 ‘niche’ health fund comes under fire: GP says it ‘could have funded an entire clinical team for a year’

Hackney Town Hall, in Mare Street.

Hackney Town Hall, in Mare Street. - Credit: Archant

Health campaigners have criticised the way £370,000 has been channelled into “niche” projects like helping businesses promote low alcohol drinks, educating gay men that it is antisocial to have sex in Abney Park and smoking cessation services focussed on minority groups.

This is the first year Hackney Council has been given the government cash to fund preventative projects through a ‘Healthier Hackney Fund’, after the Tory-Lib Dem’s Health and Social Care Act gave councils a greater health remit.

The money is funding 32 community and voluntary groups to “tackle some of Hackney’s most complex health challenges” like smoking, mental health, substance misuse and sexual health.

The Terrence Higgins Trust has been given nearly £8,000 to monitor the extent of the gay cruising scene in Abney Park cemetery and to advise men having sex there they should bin their condoms.

Meanwhile Positive East and the Lifeline Project Ltd have been given £16,000 between them to tackle chemsex, whereby gay men put themselves at high risk of contracting HIV by indulging in more unprotected sex after taking drugs.

Start-up business Club Soda and charity Alcohol Concern have been given £8,000 to help make pubs and bars ‘more welcoming’ to those who want to cut down on alcohol, while lapton Common Boys Club has been given £20,780 to educate Orthodox Jewish 13-16 year olds about the dangers of smoking and £15,306 has been given to tackle smoking in the Chinese community.

Bronwen Handyside, spokeswoman for campaign group Hackney Coalition to Save the NHS, said: “These are all good projects but they are niche services, they are quite specialised small projects.

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“I would prefer the money was allocated to the NHS which is suffering a haemorrhage of cash funds because of the £22billion cuts which are taking place.

“We have a huge problem with the NHS being broken up and sold off to the private sector and the voluntary sector has been used as a stalking horse for the private sector – you might start off commissioning services to the voluntary and charity sector and you will eventually end up with the private sector.”

Nick Mann from the Well Street Surgery lamented the money could have funded a ‘full clinical team’ for a year.

“At a time when basic medical services are under threat, it seems wrong to be further fragmenting the limited health budget,” he said.

“The loss of Public Health funding from Primary Care is already having an impact locally, as services which were formerly provided through the NHS are fragmented and/or closed down. “Our substance misuse service was integrated with the Homerton, but the Specialist Addiction Unit is no longer working with primary care.

“However well-meaning, this diversion of essential health funding will lead to further fragmentation, not integration, of health services in Hackney,” he continued.

“If Hackney received proper funding for population deprivation, this money would have been perfectly placed to achieve its aims. But, it is important to recognise the loss of core health services as the government transfers money away from the NHS.

“These local projects are replacements for - not extra to - existing services.

“Voluntary organisations do great work, but cannot substitute for properly planned and funded public health services.

“We already know that smoking, substance misuse and mental health morbidities depend on overall levels of poverty, not on micro-project activities.”

But Cllr Jonathan McShane, cabinet member for health, social care and culture, defended the projects, which he believes complement traditional public health interventions.

“Councils are learning to work smarter and achieve more with less money and we also know that we have to get serious about prevention rather than waiting until people become ill,” he said.

“We know that the voluntary and community sector often has more imaginative ways of doing things, so the fund was set up to make the most of those ideas and the energy and connections these groups have.

“We have massive ambitions in Hackney for the role prevention can play in reducing health inequalities and supporting people to live healthier, happier lives.

“Organisations that bid for funding were subject to a rigorous assessment process to ensure they demonstrated how they can reach those most in need.”

A spokesman from the Department of Health said: “Patients should get the best service regardless of who provides it, with charities, social enterprises and independent providers playing an important part in providing NHS care, as they have done for many years.”