D&S column: a magical world for very special people

From the outside, the small, boxy unit on a Northallerton industrial estate looks nothing special.

Apart from some discreet signage, there’s little to suggest what lies beyond the doorway.

Yet step inside and you enter a world of multi-coloured lighting, soft and bouncy surfaces, ball pools, cushioned slides - and children and adults with special needs having the time of their lives.

It’s the Pendragon Multi-Sensory Centre on the Omega Industrial Village (just around the corner from my constituency office) and it provides support and respite to people with physical, mental and emotional difficulties and their families.

The centre is meeting a clear need in the community of people with learning difficulties – in some cases those difficulties are very severe or profound. It is the only centre of its kind in the area and families travel from as far as Newcastle and Hull to take advantage of its amazing sensory facilities.

But it is also proving popular with children who don’t have those physical or mental challenges. Babies and toddlers are welcome to attend with their parents/carers when availability allows.

I first visited the centre over two years ago just before it opened. It’s fair to say it was still work in progress then as the finishing touches were being applied to the project. But on my return visit last week I was mightily impressed by what has been achieved through the inspiration and hard work of the people who created it and who are dedicated to sustaining its future.

The centre is supported by the Pendragon Community Trust, a group of parents and carers led by David Kerfoot, his wife Elizabeth, and their family. The Kerfoots are best known for their successful business careers and David is now one of North Yorkshire Deputy Lieutenants, helping the Lord Lieutenant as the Queen’s representative in the county.

The Trust bought the building for the centre after many years of fundraising – an exercise that continues today with the annual Northallerton 10k organised by Pendragon, a great community event enjoyed by many – including me in 2017. I’m hoping to give it another go next year!

David showed me round the immaculately looked-after centre with manager Julia Downes and they explained their plans to further develop the service the centre offers by creating an outside terrace area.

They also spoke about the challenge of ensuring there is funding in place to sustain the centre’s future. A substantial Big Lottery Fund grant is helping with the centre’s running costs during its first five years but fundraising will continue to make sure the centre continues its great work.

 

Among my ministerial duties this week was ushering the rather snappily-titled Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill to the next stage in its journey through Parliament to the statute book.

A key element of the Bill is to allow councils to increase the premium they can levy on council tax on homes that have been left empty for some years. The Government wants thousands of long-term empty properties across England to be brought back into use and improve housing supply. Progress is being made and this measure will support councils’ efforts. Also, councils will be able to use funds raised to help reduce standard council tax charges.