County council bosses are to press ahead with controversial plans to ‘close’ three respite centres in Hertfordshire – despite a 1500-strong petition calling for the plans to be halted.

Currently there are eight short-break centres across Hertfordshire where adults with physical and learning disabilities can stay overnight – giving family members a vital break from their caring role.

But bosses at the county council says the centres are underused – suggesting that average occupancy at some of the centres is as low as 44 per cent.

And they have drawn-up plans to ‘close’ three of them – Tewin Road, in Hemel Hempstead, Hixberry Lane, in St Albans and Apton Road, in Bishop’s Stortford.

The closures would reduce the overall number of respite beds available by 14 – from 48 to 34. And council officers say that could save up to £970,000 a year.

On Friday, a 1,500-signature petition calling for the plans to be halted and for the council to work with carers on an alternative plan was presented to the county council’s adult care and health cabinet panel.

But following a debate lasting almost two hours – and despite opposition from Labour and Liberal Democrat members – the cabinet panel voted to press ahead with the plans.

Now a final decision on the proposed closures will be taken by a meeting of the cabinet later this month.

Presenting the petition, Jackie Wilks questioned the council’s usage figures – pointing to some families being told there are ‘waiting lists’ or that there is nothing available.

And she questioned the way the council had selected the centres to close – pointing in particular to “successful” Hixberry Lane, where she said satisfaction was good and occupancy rates were in excess of 80 per cent.

She said she understood the need to cut costs, but she warned that the wrong decisions could cost the council more in the future.

She said: "Down the line how many of these savings are spent when families go into crisis or into supported living early because they can’t access the respite that is appropriate their children’s needs."

Liberal Democrat Cllr Chris White, who spoke at the meeting but who is not a member of the panel, said the proposals had been driven by finance – but may end up costing the council more in the long term.

He urged the council to work with the carers to co-produce a strategy and then to look for sustainable savings.

But operations director for adult disability and mental health services Mark Harvey defended the proposals.

He said there was an increasing trend for families to use ‘direct payments’ to access alternative services, rather than the respite centres – with usage rates at the eight existing centres between 44 per cent and 86 per cent.

Addressing the concerns about ‘waiting lists’ at some of the centres, he said ‘waiting list’ was not the same as people not being able to access their preferred slots.

Councillors were told that under the closure, proposals the vast majority of the people currently using those centres were within 15 miles of an alternative.

And they heard the proposals would not change the eligibility for short breaks – or the types of short breaks on offer.

However Mr Harvey accepted there would be pressure on some dates, particularly at weekends.

Alternatively families would be able to access alternative providers, home-based support, supported living services or the ‘shared lives’ scheme.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Ron Tindall and Tory councillor Andrew Stevenson both put forward amendments that would have delayed the closures, pending further consideration – but both amendments failed.

Executive member for adult care and health Cllr Richard Roberts acknowledged that change was difficult and that this was causing some anxiety.

He said: “It’s our job through this change period to reduce those anxieties as much as possible.

“For some of the service users, I would hope that some of that change would be welcome – an opportunity to do something different and see something different and some who choose other opportunities.”