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Suffolk County Council's children's centres decision sees Caterpillar and Chatterbox centres in Woodbridge and Ipswich set to close

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Radical changes to children’s centres provision in Suffolk have been given final approval after more than a year in the pipeline.

Suffolk County Council’s cabinet gave the green light to close two centres – Caterpillar Children’s Centre in Woodbridge and Chatterbox in Ipswich – as well as hand eight centres back to school or nurseries they are attached to, and turn 11 into part-time hubs. Seventeen will remain open full-time.

The changes aim to offer more outreach services to help those in hard-to-reach rural areas and cater for those aged up to 19 years old rather than just the current five.

Suffolk County Council, Endeavour House (41291895)
Suffolk County Council, Endeavour House (41291895)

The new model, called family hubs, should save around £435,000 in building costs, which will be pumped into staffing, and help recruit 12 outreach workers.

It is also set to include evening and weekend sessions.

Conservative cabinet member for children’s services and education, Mary Evans, said: “Family hubs are the natural evolution of the work of our children’s centres.

Cllr Mary Evans
Cllr Mary Evans

“Buildings do not serve communities, it is people who do that and it is our health and children’s centre staff who make the impact, not the building where they are based.”

Mrs Evans said there would be no redundancies, and savings made from buildings would be re-invested in the service, and added that it will have a “long-lasting benefit for the families of Suffolk”.

The family hubs model is one which has been used elsewhere in the country and is backed by the children’s commissioner, but the Suffolk changes do not have the support of the British Association of Social Workers.

The proposals were first unveiled in April last year as part of work by a task group, but have evolved since then to focus less on saving money.

Councillor Jack Abbott. (41292336)
Councillor Jack Abbott. (41292336)

The decision was due to be made last month but was delayed at zero-hour when errors over footfall data were found in the reports.

But Jack Abbott, Labour group spokesman for children’s services, questioned whether errors remained as some of the data expected to be updated as a result of initial errors had not been changed.

Cllr Penny Otton
Cllr Penny Otton

He described the buildings as 'incredible refuges for people' and added: “The evidence backing their proposals is non-existent. They 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.

“This will have a devastating impact on Suffolk’s children and families. We needed a stronger service which protected and strengthened our invaluable children’s centres, properly invested in outreach and maximised the services offered. Instead, the Tories have decided to hollow out the service and make cuts to nearly two dozen children’s centres."

It comes after Cllr Abbott urged the authority to make 'cast iron guarantees ' that the Highfield Children's Centre in Ipswich would remain open.

Changes will be introduced on a site-by-site basis, with dates set to be announced in due course.

Chatterbox is to close because it is a small site with limited parking and cannot be used outside working hours, while Caterpillar was a high cost building with no parking.

Penny Otton, from the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group, said that while there was no objection to the family hub model itself, there were questions over the closures, adding there were 'still serious flaws with the data used to justify these cuts' and was 'clearly not an evidence-based decision'.

Neil Bland from UNISON described it as a 'sad day for many Suffolk families'.

“Senior councillors clai​m they’ve listened to staff during this consultation, but they’ve kept their fingers in their ears the whole time," he said. "Mary Eva​ns mentioned UNISON’s survey of children’s centre staff during today’s cabinet as an example of her listening exercises. She didn’t mention that our survey showed staff were overwhelmingly against the changes.

“We still have no answers on a whole range of issues about how this redesign will actually work.

“We asked about how hard-up third-sector providers would find the cash to make centres fit for their purpose. The​ council’s only answer is a blind faith that grants are available.

“Despite today’s vote, Suffolk County Council still has the chance to step back from the brink and save these centres.”

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