Norma Brier to quit after Norwood crisis measures

By Jessica Elgot, March 17, 2011
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Addressing the Norwood dinner

Addressing the Norwood dinner

Norwood chief executive Norma Brier is to retire after 22 years with Norwood and Ravenswood, having delayed her departure to manage the consequences of the swingeing funding cuts from local authorities.

Redundancies among head office staff and reduced salaries for front-line care workers have been part of a plan to deal with the £4 million in lost funding. Recent talks with the Unite union broke down in acrimony. However, Mrs Brier is hopeful of reaching a settlement in the coming weeks.

"I wanted to stay and support the staff through difficult times," she said.

"It was never our intention to cause harm or unhappiness to our staff. We have had to be practical. But we will settle. We've already improved the offer to our staff. We'll move forward."

Her early Ravenswood days

Her early Ravenswood days

The cuts had affected Mrs Brier "terribly keenly. I have been so personally involved in this organisation for the last 22 years that nothing hurts more. That's why I have to make sure I see this through. But I won't miss this current unhappiness."

She has been determined that the financial problems should not result in service cuts, a commitment she intends to impress upon her successor. "Whatever pain we've gone through has to be to avoid cutting services, so please don't cut them. Put all the funding we have into the services so we can remain the safety net for the community."

Mrs Brier became chief executive after leading the merger of Norwood with Ravenswood (where she held the same title) and has seen immense change in the culture of caring for those with learning disabilities.

"When I first started, everybody made decisions on behalf of the person with the disability. We have a much healthier, more empowering model of support where people are encouraged make decisions for themselves. Before, people would be taken into residential homes, whether they were compatible with them or not. We would never do that now. Vacancies can remain. It has to be right for that person."

One thing she will gladly be removed from is the endless bureaucracy involved in social care. "When I started, anyone well-meaning could set up a home without any restrictions - and many failed. Now people have to be properly vetted. That has been a great improvement, but over-restriction has been overwhelming and created a situation that has been unnecessarily restrictive. Many very highly qualified staff spend too long filling in forms and writing reports rather than working with people on the ground."

During her tenure, the charity has raised more than £350 million from voluntary and statutory sources. She says much of her time is spent on "donor care" and fundraising, but she insists the organisation will never be "donor led".

Fundraising has been revoluntionised since media baron Richard Desmond took over the presidency in 2006, leading to the regular appearance of personalities like Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan and Vanessa Feltz at Norwood events.

"Without him, we would have nowhere near the support we have of celebrities, people in media and business that we have attracted. Our annual dinners are largest in the community, with 1,300 people. I know for some people he is a very controversial figure but all I can say is since he has been involved, he has been totally committed to what we do."

Mrs Brier hopes to depart by September, with a successor in place. She will leave a staff of 1,200 and 800 volunteers, providing for 7,000 service users. She had "derived enormous pleasure seeing people improve, people who came in from a long-stay in hospital unable to speak or cope at all, who are now able after five or six years to go out and hold down a job. That's overwhelming.

"When I see people who have lived in huge residential services now in their own flat and doing their own cooking and shopping, I feel we have made a difference." She highlighted Norwood's adoption service and project for learning disabled people in Belarus as achievements she took particular pride in. Mrs Brier expects to be at the 2011 annual dinner, "having worked towards it right up until I leave. But I really want to come back just as a guest.

"I'm going to have a break but I want to continue doing some work in the sector. Being able to pick and choose will be lovely. I want to keep making a contribution in some way to the community as a professional, as a thinker and as a woman. Any perspective where I can be useful.

"I like keeping fit and doing gardening and I'm a Justice of the Peace. I shall have a bit more time for them and a bit more time for my family. My son is getting married in the summer, so that's very exciting. But I don't want to make too many plans."

    Last updated: 12:43pm, March 17 2011