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Children's centres in Suffolk under threat of closure

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A number of children’s centres across Suffolk are under threat of closure as part of a wide-ranging review of services, it has been revealed.

A cross-party task force was set up by Suffolk County Council in February to review the county’s health and children’s centres and the way they operate.

The extent of possible changes has not yet been made clear, but multiple sources indicate that as many as half of the existing 38 are being eyed for closure as part of cost-cutting measures.

Endeavour House, Ipswich (8409194)
Endeavour House, Ipswich (8409194)

It has not yet emerged if staff redundancies could be made with any closures.

County council bosses refused to be drawn on the group’s discussions, but confirmed the full recommendations would be prepared ahead of next month’s cabinet meeting on the 21st.

A council spokesman said: “The purpose of the panel is to further develop the council’s policy for the provision of a complete family service for Suffolk in line with the principles of alliance working, further strengthening the relationship across health, partners, the voluntary sector and local communities.

“We see this as an opportunity to develop a new family service offer and ensure any potential model of delivery provides co-ordinated support for children in need and their families.

“Therefore, a review of the current children’s centre offer is required.

“This is to ensure that we can meet the aspirations of a true family model whilst maintaining a relevant presence and offer to meet the needs of vulnerable families across Suffolk.

“Also maximising resources to deliver a local service with a new and more flexible approach to service delivery.

“The next stage of the PDP [policy development panel] is to evaluate options and will present these proposals to cabinet in May.

“Staffing and property rumours are not helpful at this stage for both employees and users of family services.

“Any change in the provision will be delivered alongside our staff and with full engagement with the public.”

Health and children’s centres across Suffolk offer a host of free activities and services such as baby massage, child health clinics, midwifery services, play groups, parenting support sessions and advice.

Services were previously under threat in 2015, which prompted a swathe of public opposition.

Why children’s centres are important

Anne Humphrys, co-chair of Suffolk Parent Carer Network, said “Families tell us that children’s centres are often a very real lifeline to them.

“Parents have told us how they have stopped them being isolated, enabled them to access the right services and bond with their children, provide specialist groups for children with additional needs and have even prevented them from taking their own lives.

“We spoke to the PDP and told them what an essential resource they were. We also said the review was a good opportunity to develop their reach even further.

“This could be as part of the work such as developing the family support offer and the speech, language and communication needs of outreach services.

“Any decision about children’s centres which results in a reduction of services, reduced accessibility and is detrimental to families simply cannot be a decision SPCN could support.”

Bec Jasper from Parents and Carers Together (PACT) – a support organisation for parents and carers of children with mental health issues – said 80% of adults it worked with had relied on children’s centres in the past.

She said: “Children’s centres continue to provide a lifeline of information, support and signposting parents to other local organisations as well as giving parents, carers and children an opportunity to meet up with others in their area and share experiences or play.

“This preventative and successful resource is very much needed to combat rising isolation especially in rural areas and helping to combat rising mental health issues both in children and young people and also adults and parents.

The 2015 closures

The latest proposals are not the first time children’s centres have faced the guillotine.

In 2014, Suffolk County Council set up a similar review of how children’s centres were run, which included the option of closing nine centres.

Those nine closures took place across the county to generate around £250,000 of savings.

Speaking at the time, Conservative cabinet member for children’s services Gordon Jones said many of the buildings for those which were closed in 2015 were “no longer fit for purpose”.

Findings from the survey held at the time found that out of 854 respondents nearly two thirds (63.1%) disagreed with the proposals.

In January this year, Norfolk County Council rubber-stamped the closure of 38 of its 53 centres as part of a £5million package of savings.

A similar “family service” label was offered for those changes.

This is a short-sighted measure which will end up costing society far more in the long run - David Ellesmere, Ipswich Borough Council leader

Ipswich Borough Council leader David Ellesmere was a staunch opponent to plans in 2014 and ‘15 for the closure of children’s centres.

Those closures included the Meredith and Quayside facilities in Ipswich.

With the latest proposals having emerged with a fresh threat, Mr Ellesmere warned that there was far more to be lost than gained.

“Children’s centres are about giving children the best possible start in life,” he said.

“This is a short-sighted measure which will end up costing society far more in the long run.

“After the wake of the murder of Tavis Spencer-Aitkens I thought everyone now recognised the damage that cuts to children’s services by Suffolk County Council has caused to our young people.

“Many parents will be deeply worried about these proposals.”