FIRST signs of a possible U-turn have appeared in Lancashire County Council's plans to close 35 care homes, including Cravenside Home for the Elderly in Barnoldswick.

When the proposals were revealed in January there was a public outcry and opposition has been growing ever since.

Senior Labour MPs, including Pendle's Gordon Prentice, have voiced deep-seated concerns over the Labour-run county council's plans and now even Prime Minister Tony Blair has told Parliament that the Government will investigate the issue.

Until now the county council has refused to budge from the closure proposals.

But this week its leader, Coun Hazel Harding, asked officers to "urgently explore" how the 1,100 care home residents can remain in homes run by the county council and not be moved into the private sector.

That instruction is being interpreted as the first sign of a climb-down in the face of overwhelming opposition to its closure proposals.

Coun Harding said: "I am conscious of the need to ensure we explore all possible opportunities for safeguarding the care of elderly people in Lancashire. I have asked officers to urgently explore the option that our elderly can remain in the care they obviously support and value.

"We are listening to the views and concerns of the residents, their relatives and the public of Lancashire and we are continuing to offer opportunities for people to share their concerns and thoughts with us.

"This consultation has shown a wave of support for the way in which the county council looks after our elderly.

"I want to give them an assurance that I will do everything I can to make sure they stay in local authority care. I have an urgent meeting with MPs this week to lobby for more money for providing the care our elderly deserve."

However, West Craven Liberal Democrat county councillor David Whipp warned that the battle isn't won yet.

He said: "This has been billed as a 'climb down' from the county council's position, or even a 'mini U-turn'. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"I'm afraid that all we are getting is weasel words from Coun Harding. The statement is a cynical whitewash designed to cover up the cracks and get Labour through this May's local elections.

"I welcome the fact that Coun Harding has at last recognised the enormous opposition and strength of feeling over Labour's plans, but nowhere in her statement does she move away from their proposals to close care homes.

"The message to Lancashire people is clear; the cracks are beginning to appear. Now is the time to pile on the pressure, get this crazy consultation withdrawn and lift the threat from our elderly people. Anything less is just meaningless manoeuvring."

At Barnoldswick Town Council's annual town meeting on Monday, a formal resolution was unanimously passed opposing the proposed Cravenside closure.

The resolution was moved by Dean Ashley, of the Save Cravenside Action Group, and had two parts. First, to oppose totally any proposal to close Cravenside HFE. Second, to reject the county council's consultation document on the grounds that it presents only one option and not the range of choices and options that a true consultation document should have.

Coun John Broughton added a third part, pointing out that the proposals were at odds with the latest Government guidance on care for the elderly.

"I think the Labour county councillors need a reminder that their bosses in London don't think like they do," he said.