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County council's decision to revamp children's centres in Suffolk challenged by opposition councillors

A controversial decision to revamp Suffolk ’s children’s centres made earlier this week has been challenged by opposition councillors – and could be due a fresh debate.

The opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent groups have united to ‘call-in’ the decision made by Suffolk County Council’s Conservative administration on Monday to change children’s centres into family hubs.

It is effectively a challenge to the way the decision was reached, and if upheld by the council’s monitoring officers, will likely be heard at a scrutiny committee meeting on September 11.

Suffolk County Council, Endeavour House. Picture by Mark Westley
Suffolk County Council, Endeavour House. Picture by Mark Westley

The shake-up aims to provide more outreach services and cater for ages 0-19 instead of just 0-5, but in doing so will see 11 centres cut to part-time hours, eight closed for space to be returned to schools and nurseries and two – Caterpillar Children’s Centre in Woodbridge and Chatterbox in Ipswich – to close entirely.

But the opposition groups claim it was not an evidence-based decision.

Labour group children’s services spokesman Jack Abbott said: “The analysis, some of which is four years out of date, is all over the place.

“The evidence backing their proposals is non-existent.

“The Tories have ignored the pleas of families, children’s centre staff and social workers who have all said that these plans simply do not stack up.”

Children’s services spokeswoman for the Lib Dems, Greens and Independents, Penny Otton, added: “We have serious concerns with the way the decision to close these centres was made, and our analysis has uncovered huge issues which need to be challenged.

“There is a lack of any sort of financial analysis or risk assessment in the report, so we really don’t know how these cuts can be justified.”

Other grounds for the challenge include a lack of information on how the Covid-19 situation may have changed things, concerns over the wording of questions in the public consultation, questions over the site analysis and a lack of analysis on how other authorities which use the family hub model have fared.

Conservative cabinet member for children’s services, Mary Evans, on Tuesday’s meeting said: “Throughout the two-year period over which these proposals have been developed we have taken into account the views of our staff and service users to inform these final proposals,” and added “I feel very confident in the data presented”.

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