It is the ultimate David and Goliath story.
On March 30 this year, the day – ironically – before the region’s health devolution deal came into legal effect, Manchester’s ailing mental health trust took a potentially catastrophic decision.
Despite the combined protests from patients, staff, unions, councillors, MPs and an M.E.N. campaign that their plan could cost lives, the trust axed eight separate services.
The move was designed to save £1.5m – although nowhere near what the trust needed – and was estimated to hit 500 patients. Unions put it at more like 800.
The atmosphere at that meeting in March was one of anger and desperation. But the decision was taken.
For many people life then moved on. One group of patients, however, decided differently. And their determination would lead to an extraordinary about-turn this week.
Paul Reed, chair of Manchester Users Network, led the charge.
“Basically what they were doing was stripping the trust of everything. So we asked service users who would come forward and challenge their service being under threat,” he says.
“In some cases it was hard for people to come along, because they were shy.
“One person was very, very shy and wouldn’t even use the phone. But Benchmark [one of the services under threat, at which patients learn woodwork skills in the community, helping them to stay well, have confidence and be less isolated] had given her a life.
Crowds gather to protest the cuts earlier this year
“It had kept her well. So she came forward and became a candidate then for the judicial review. That’s how it came about. She was determined. Even though she could hardly speak on the phone, she managed to speak to solicitors used to speaking to patients.”
Anne-Marie Jolie, of London law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, was one of those solicitors.
“It’s very difficult in the first place to get people who are that vulnerable to come forward,” she says.
“Part of the problem with these kind of cases is finding someone brave enough to do so.”
The lady is too vulnerable be interviewed by the M.E.N. But her determination and bravery paid off.
As soon as the judicial review was formally launched at the end of June, Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust were ordered to halt what they were doing while the process played out.
At that point, the landscape shifted.
“There were negotiations going on within unions staff in the background over all the jobs that were going to be lost,” says Paul.
“As soon as they found out there was going to be a judicial review, they stopped because the courts told them they couldn’t close anything.
Protests against the cuts earlier this year
“That’s when they knew they had a challenge on their hands. I think that’s when they made up their minds.”
Ann-Marie says the challenge was planning to focus more on the clinical commissioners, because when she and her colleagues investigated the basis of their decision, they found they had taken no independent consideration of the impact of the service cuts – and had relied entirely on the trust’s own process.
On Friday, Manchester’s Mental Health Trust submitted its defence, implying it was still planning to fight the case.
But on Tuesday Manchester’s three CCGs backed down entirely, later saying they did not want to go through the expense and the disruption of fighting the legal case.
Watch: Manchester’s mental health services in crisis
Both the patients and solicitors believe they could have won, however. And Anne-Marie, whose firm takes on many cases against cuts, says it could be a landmark one.
“I am very interested in this case because we were looking at the commissioner’s role,” she says. I think people who are looking to challenge cuts, particularly in the NHS, should be made aware of that.”
So the eight services will not close, after all. Redundancy consultations with trade unions have been broken off.
Although mental health patients were put through months of anguish and confusion over whether their support would vanish, this battle, at least, had been won.
Paul says it does mark a victory. He says the fear was that if the group hadn’t done something, ‘they were going to close everything’. That included Harpurhey Wellbeing Centre.
There, people with mental health needs pop in regularly for something to eat and general support. Staff in the kitchens there would notice if someone didn’t turn up – they would pester them and find out what was going on, whether they’d had a bad day, a relapse.
“The buildings, once lost, will not come back,” he says. “This means that we have got services back for some of our members and that will keep them healthy and keep them going.
“It also means we have got people who are listening. That has to be a good thing.
“Now people really understand that if they take away our services and they aren’t meeting our needs, you generally find you have a legal case against them – which they have to adhere to.
“We do want to thank the M.E.N. because getting things into the papers does put pressure on them.”
Moving forward, nobody knows exactly what will happen to Manchester’s mental health services. Although this fight has been won, Paul refers to an army of retired nurses – such as Anabel Marsh, who has featured in the M.E.N. previously – who go out and hold their own community groups for people in the absence of anything provided by the NHS.
Nobody knows about it, he says, because the nurses set them up on their own. But they are plugging a gap nobody talks about.
Whether that scenario continues when the trust is taken over – a process some insiders say is being fast-tracked to the end of this year because of what has happened – remains to be seen, and will require continued pressure from patients, politicians and the M.E.N. for funding to be put into place.
But in the meantime that one woman, supported by fellow patients, has pulled off an astonishing feat.
“Even though the client doesn’t necessarily have to go to the hearings, it’s still a very daunting thing to have to go through, so I think she deserves full credit for what she did,” says Anne-Marie.
“She did this. And she’s amazing. Benchmark has been her life and for her it would have been an incredible loss.”
For Paul and other members of the user’s network, her determination – and theirs – has changed lives, he says.
“This means everything to us.”