Guide Dogs to replace 13 centres

JULIE PYBUS

A row has broken out among beneficiaries of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association following the news that it is to replace 13 residential training centres with locally based schemes.

Up to 150 jobs could go among catering, maintenance, kennel and administration staff and Guide Dogs anticipates the closures will create savings of £11 million a year. It will also end a 10-year period during which the charity's expenditure exceeded its income.

Wayne Busbridge, Guide Dogs' representative in Kent, has attacked the plans in the national press, calling the organisation "irresponsible".

He has called for the Charity Commission to step in to stop the changes.

However, Guide Dogs' chief executive, Geraldine Peacock, said: "There is a small, vocal minority who are frightened of losing the past. If you pay too much attention to them you lose the chance to communicate with your other supporters, although striking the right balance is tricky."

When Peacock became chief executive of Guide Dogs in 1997 she inherited £200 million in reserves, coupled with a £17 million revenue deficit.

Legacy income, a major source of the charity's funding, had plummeted following negative publicity over its troubles.

Over the past five years, Peacock has revamped the organisation with the aim of balancing its books. However, since the equities market plummeted after 11 September, £20 million has been wiped off Guide Dogs' reserves, which now stand at £130 million. It is also forecast that legacy income will decline in the future.

"Guide Dogs is doing is what a lot of other charities should do and taking a long, hard look at our financial basis,

said Peacock. "The poor investment performance has reinforced that we needed to make these changes."

After carrying out pilot schemes, Guide Dogs discovered that guide dog owners increasingly disliked residential training centres. It found that district teams offer a more flexible choice of training delivered closer to blind people's own homes in rented accommodation such as hotels or other premises. Occupancy rates at the training centres have dropped to an average of just 11 per cent.

Four of the former residential training centre buildings will continue to be used for the initial teaching of new guide dogs. The remainder will be either sold or renovated and then leased. "We will be investing in people and services, not bricks and mortar,

said Peacock.

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