Controversial plans to downgrade one in three Brighton and Hove children’s centres are back on the table now that last year’s temporary reprieve is running out – and this time, the cuts are even deeper.
Last year, the city’s Green administration introduced plans to merge four of the city’s 12 designated centres to balance its budget – but this was reversed following a public outcry and temporary funding of £670,000 was found to delay the plans for a year.
But now, with Labour in charge, the merger plan is up for consideration again – and further deep cuts to the council’s government grant means the service needs to make another £176,000 in savings, in total a 35 per cent reduction in the overall budget.
This means that The Deans centre in Woodingdean is also now set to merge, and Cornerstone could stop providing children’s centre services entirely.
The plans propose merging The Deans with Roundabout, West Hove with Conway Court, Hollingbury and Patcham with Hollingdean and City View with both Tarner and Moulsecoomb.
However, baby groups open to all parents would continue to be offered at sites where they’re currently run, with at least one toddler group a week run at all existing centres except Meadowview, which is poorly used.
The plans will be discussed at a meeting of the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee on Monday 16 November.
Councillor Tom Bewick, who chairs the committee, said: “The review makes clear that it will not be possible to provide the same level of services with the reduction in funding to the children’s centre budget.
“We need to deliver budget savings while making sure resources are targeted at the children and families who need them most.
This means making difficult decisions about services that I know families value.
“I would encourage everyone to respond to the consultation so that the committee can take account of people’s views when we make decisions about the future of children’s centres in January.”
The plans split the Green group in February, with a crisis meeting held ahead of the budget being set, and some Green councillors joining a protest march against the plans.
The marchers called on the council to refuse to set a budget – although this would have run the risk of the government sending in a team to do it and potentially make even deeper cuts.
One of the budget rebels, Councillor Alex Phillips, said of the current plans: “This has to be the most short-sighted cut being proposed by the Labour council so far.
“It will cost far more in the long run if these vital services are cut and families in desperate need of support are turned away.
“The report on these proposals notes they will have a huge disproportionate impact on low income families, and particularly on the BME community.
“We recognise that the council faces extremely challenging financial times because of the Conservative national government’s devastating austerity programme.
“But this requires a wider, strategic response to address the issue, not the arbitrary salami-slicing approach being carried out by this Labour council.
“It makes absolutely no financial sense to cut services which will lead to higher costs in a few years time.
“The proposals here are based on meeting the needs of the most deprived areas in the city.
“Although these areas clearly require as much support as possible, we cannot ignore the pockets of deprivation that exist across the city and close the services people there rely on.
“We must also consider families who may not be the most deprived but are struggling to cope and depend on the invaluable support that children’s centres can provide.
“Labour are planning to consult on these issues but have already taken certain options off the table.
“In my view that is not a genuine consultation and misses an opportunity to work with local residents to identify creative opportunities to keep all our children’s centres open.
“The proposals show an administration struggling to cope – there’s no plan here.”
The plans also include:
- Only opening centres when services are running
- Ending the link with the Fiveways playgroup
- Possibly partnering with the library service at Hollingbury and Patcham
- Explore developing a citywide online children’s centre via the council website and through social media
- Stories and play sessions at Coldean and Woodingdean ended
- Fewer Triple P parenting courses.
- Home visits will be restricted to those who need it most, with others encouraged to come to the centres
- Support for young children with mulitiple disadvantage will be improved
- The number of parent advisory groups will be cut from ten to five.
The report, written by council officer Caroline Parker, says: “The council plans to move to a co-operative model of service delivery, with services provided by a mix of council officers, voluntary organisations and volunteers based at neighbourhood hubs, which will include the existing children’s centres.”
She also detailed feedback from the “overwhelming” response to the last consultation: “There was strong disagreement with the proposals. Key themes included: children’s centres provide vital services and should not change, savings now will lead to greater costs and poorer outcomes in the future, universal services are key to reducing stigma and community cohesion and should be kept. There was agreement that families who have most needs should get priority.”
The report says children living in Moulsecoomb, Roundabout, Tarner and Hangleton areas have some of the highest needs, and poorest outcomes in the city. However there are also pockets of deprivation across the city.
Nearly 20 per cent of children in the city live in poverty and welfare reforms are having a further detrimental impact on families.
In Brighton and Hove around 30 per cent of two year olds qualify for free nursery places and the take up of more than 84 per cent is one of the highest in England.
The consultation is planned to start on Tuesday 17 November and will be available on the council’s online portal, with paper copies in children’s centres. There will also be meetings with children’s centre users.