Purpose-built centre in Bedminster was built for millions, but sold for under £700,000

February 01 2019
Blind community protest at closure of centre by RNIB

ANGRY members of the blind and visually impaired community confronted charity bosses over the loss of a Bedminster centre which they say will be a loss to the whole of Bristol when it closes in May.

UPDATED on February 21 – the former RNIB centre was not built by the RNIB, as the story originally stated, but by another charity.

 

ANGRY members of the blind and visually impaired community confronted charity bosses over the loss of a Bedminster centre which they say will be a loss to the whole of Bristol when it closes in May.

The centre in Stillhouse Lane, Bedminster, close to Bedminster bridge, was purpose-built for for Bristol Royal Society for the Blind (BRSB)  in 1993 at a cost of £2.7 million. It was transferred to the RNIB ownership when BRSB became part of the national charity in 2000. 

But the RNIB has been plagued by money worries for years and in April last year it sold the centre for less than £700,000. To many, this was a bafflingly small sum for a building the size of several houses, with a large car park.

Despite 14 months of discussions, the charity has not found a building to replace it. The new owner, Guide Dogs for the Blind, wants to take full use of the building by May.

Now a pressure group, Bristol and District Visually Impaired (VI) Voice, has pulled out of consultation with regional RNIB managers in frustration that no site has been found.

“We have said we are not going to continue sitting down with them, because they are just talking the time away,” said Paul Sullivan, secretary of the VI Voice group.

Plans to move into the Whitefriars building in Lewins Mead in the city centre were dropped in mid-January because the cost is too high.

Now members of the VI Voice group fear they – and the 11,000 other visually impaired people in the Bristol area – will not get the single centre they believe they need.

“I think you have lost the trust of an awful lot of people,” one of about 50 visually impaired woman at the protest told RNIB officials on January 22.

Another said: “How are you going to redeem the goodwill you have lost in Bristol?” A third accused the RNIB of “treating people like idiots”.

Another referred to public donations which have funded improvements at Stillhouse Lane, and questioned whether people would want to contribute to the charity in future. 

Colin Whitbourn, RNIB networks manager for the South of England, told the gathering that “we will find places” for all the groups that meet at Stillhouse Lane.

But the VI Voice group believes that the RNIB will not sign up to a long lease and wants to find short-term premises in different locations for different blind groups.

“You know that that is totally unacceptable to the blind people in Bristol,” said VI Voice member Martin Sullivan.

The RNIB’s Bedminster resource centre, which supplied special equipment and training to the visually impaired, has already closed.

“I spent six weeks there learning to use an iPhone and it changed my life,” said one visually impaired woman.

Others complained that calls to a replacement phone service were answered in London, where staff knew nothing about services in Bristol.

Having a single centre means that visually impaired people who visit for one reason can discover other groups and ideas to enrich their lives, said Paul Sullivan.

He called on the RNIB to honour a promise that Stillhouse Lane would be replaced by a centre that was “as good, if not better.”

The RNIB would not comment on whether the promise was made.

But the meeting was told that the sale price of the building had been approved by an independent surveyor, as demanded by charity law. The building is close to the river, and the flood risk means it couldn’t be converted easily into housing.

Stephen Weymouth, RNIB network nanager for the South West, said: “Like every charity, we have a responsibility to make the best use of our resources, and review plans and projects on a regular basis accordingly. We continue to work with Vision West of England (VWE) to explore opportunities to co-locate whilst meeting affordability criteria, and RNIB staff will remain at Stillhouse Lane until the end of May.

“It may not be possible for us to secure an accessible location that offers space for training, social events and other activities on-site, but we will work with other organisations to find suitable facilities both close to Stillhouse Lane and in other areas of Bristol that people with sight loss will be able to use.

“Our commitment to working with local partners to support more blind and partially sighted people in the Bristol area, both now and in the future, remains unchanged.”

Paul Sullivan criticised the RNIB’s approach. “They have had 14 months when they could have earmarked some funding,” he said. “They keep saying, ‘Let’s find a place and see how much it costs.’ We keep saying, you wouldn’t buy a house on that basis!”

VI Voice is hoping to talk directly to the RNIB’s chief executive, Eliot Lyne, to try to resolve the situation.