Meet the Thelma and Louise of Wyre Council’s mobile advice service.
Elaine Gregory and Nicola Makin pack a lot of life experience when they go on the road in the Fylde’s most diverse borough.
Debt, despair, relationship blues, benefit cuts, broken homes, they have seen it all from others, young and old, asking for help.
If they don’t have the answers they guide visitors to others who do.
And right now they face their busiest time of year.
Once the New Year festivities are over many will be left counting the cost of creating a memorable time.
When reality crashes in they will turn to Elaine and Nicola for guidance.
The pair primarily dispense housing and Council Tax benefit advice.
But over the years – three years for Elaine, eight for Nicola – their role has developed.
They have dealt with anything and everything from a 14-year-old wanting relationship advice after breaking up with his girlfriend to someone asking for a portion of fish and chips ...the old bus did look more like a catering van.
One smart alec even nipped on board to ask if they could fix his mobile phone.
“I don’t think it’s in our nature to turn people away when they genuinely need help,” says Elaine.
Both are specialist trained advisors for Wyre but give a fair bit of cross-border advice too. If they park up at Cleveleys – virtually opposite the bus station – there’s a fair chance that visitors will drop in from other areas along with those living over Wyre’s border in Blackpool.
“We can generally guide them to help,” adds Elaine. They now have a wealth of facilities at their fingertips. Gone is the battered old benefits bus which looked a bit like a chippie.
The new-look bus is bigger, better, safer.
The mobile advice centre was introduced seven years ago when the council’s area offices closed. Since then it’s dealt with more than 80,000 face-to-face inquiries, and means people no longer need to visit the civic centre.
It’s already racking up more inquiries than similar services offered from civic centres at neighbouring authorities and others further afield.
It’s also winning plaudits for the speed of turn round times for new benefit claims or change of circumstances – leaving some councils standing by as much as a month.
Much of it is down to Wyre’s contact centre chief Peter Mason wanting frontline officers who are expert in all related fields – rather than just specialising in, say Council Tax,or Housing Benefit. It means customers don’t get referred along the line to as many as four different officers. It cuts out most of the legwork both sides of the counter.
The B-Mac (benefits mobile advice centre) is also equipped with mobile connectivity to allow instant access to the main Civic Centre at Poulton from remote locations.
It means advisors working on the B-Mac are able to process claims while the customer waits.
Since the area offices closed the bus has travelled throughout the borough pitching up in key areas.
The new vehicle is bigger, better and with more IT facilities than ever before.
It also has a separate office for more privacy – a must for clients who don’t want others listening in .
Elaine and Nicola both love driving the bus as well as working on board it. “It’s like driving a big caravan,” says Elaine.
“Me and another girl Tracy who got the job three years ago had to have a day out in an enormous truck just to get used to the driving. It had hydraulic brakes and all sorts. This is much easier. And we always see more people here than we can at the Civic Centre.”
Nicola adds: “Many of our customers can’t get to Poulton so they come to see us instead. I worked with the council for 13 years and joined this right from the start eight years ago.
“A mobile service is far more effective. Fleetwood’s our busiest place, we’re at Lord Street all day Monday and Wednesday, at Manor Road Tuesday afternoon, and every other Thursday afternoon at Chatsworth Avenue. We’re at Thornton, near the Little Theatre, on Fleetwood Road North, on Tuesday mornings, and every Friday. from 8.30am to 3pm, at Derby Road car park, Cleveleys.”
The team do alternate Thursdays at High Street, Garstang from 9am to 3.30pm, and 9am to 12.45pm at Lancaster Road, Knott End, under special permit to park there.
Elaine and Nicola say they have picked up more inquiries since the closure of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Cleveleys.
“We also get legal advice inquiries,” adds Nicola.
Elaine points out: “Our job is Housing Benefit, Council Tax support, Council Tax debt but we work closely with our housing options team, who deal with homelessness, and we can order bins, and fire off waste inquiries to the right people too.
“We work closely with Environmental Health too so if tenants have problems with landlords, private or social, we can help get those resolved. Their caseload has gone up by 20 per cent as a result of the inquiries we refer to them.
“We can really help push things along.
“All our area officers have Blackberries so we can get in touch with them straight away and it’s all recorded so 100 per cent accountable. It ensures the work gets done and is seen to get done. Anything Wyre has a responsibility for we can help process but we can signpost people to Lancashire County Council (LCC) too, or Blackpool, or the Department for Work and Pensions. We do our best to help.”
Elaine says the B-Mac has become a bus for all seasons. “It carried the Olympic torch – we have even used it for dog chipping events. We also promoted collective energy on board, signing people up for energy deals. We have loads of leaflets and useful numbers, for DLA, CAB, Blue Badges, bus passes, Social Services and the like.”
The pair are sad to have lost one service – the reissue of bus passes – to LCC.
“People just used to come to us, we’d get their picture, reissue the pass, now we have to refer them on, and older people get frustrated by the process involved.
“It just seems a bit territorial and it’s the person who needs the bus pass sooner rather than later who loses out.”
Elaine and Nicola say demand differs with the locality.
“We pitch up at Knott End and people come on and have a bit of a chunner about litter, dog mess, speed of cars, refuse.
“At Garstang there are a lot of people in mobile homes who come on for help about ground rent.
“Fleetwood takes two full days on the same spot and we’re crammed all day.
“It’s mostly benefit queries, particularly with the changes, a lot coming off Employment Support Allowance because they have failed the medical, or sanctioned on Jobseekers because others don’t think they are looking for work hard enough.
“It can be quite hard. We get a lot of queries about Disabled Living Allowance too.
“A local vicar came on to ask about food banks and where he could refer homeless people.”
Nicola says the team have even found homes for some customers.
“We work closely with private landlords so can ring round them before we refer them to our local housing team.”
Elaine adds: “The two biggies have been the benefit cap, and under occupancy in social housing.”
Both have real sympathy for some caught in recent benefits sanctions.
Elaine adds: “Some expected to keep a tenancy for life, and have invested in their properties, and now face cuts because of under occupancy.
“They don’t want to move out of what’s been the family home and dowsize to a place which may not have a carpet or wallpaper – because it’s been ripped out – and leave their friends and memories behind.
“You can’t help but have sympathy for some people. Time and again I’ve felt sorry for them.”
The service is a victim of its own success.
On a busy day the team may see up to 100 people in Fleetwood – and have to shut up shop on a queue even when they have worked through lunch or over-run on their hours.
“We would be here till midnight if we let them,” says Elaine “But sometimes you have to say enough is enough. And by and large people still appreciate what we offer.”
* For more information on B-Mac or other inquiries call the contact centre on (01253) 891000.