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Suffolk County Council urged to make "cast iron guarantees" Ipswich's Highfield Children's Centre will stay open beyond 2022

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Opposition councillors have urged a county authority to make "cast iron guarantees" an Ipswich children's centre will stay open beyond 2022.

Later today Suffolk County Council's cabinet will agree sweeping changes to children's centres, which will see Chatterbox in Ipswich and Caterpillar in Woodbridge closed and eight re-purposed to provide nursery care.

If plans are approved today by the county's Conservative leaders the remaining 28 will be converted into family hubs, with 11 of those made part-time.

Highfield Children's Centre, Ipswich. Picture: Google Inc. (41161496)
Highfield Children's Centre, Ipswich. Picture: Google Inc. (41161496)

And councillors are also set to approve plans to continue running the Highfield centre, in Chesterfield Drive, until 2020 and then extend the contract to run services until 2022.

But Cllr Jack Abbott, Labour spokesman for children's services, education, and skills, urged the county council to make a long term commitment to the centre.

“There are indications that the Conservatives are now looking to make a belated U-turn on their decision to close Highfield Children’s Centre. If so, it would represent a huge victory for the families and staff who have campaigned so hard to retain these vital services," he told Suffolk News.

“What we now want to see is a real long-term commitment and cast iron guarantees so that we can be certain that Highfield will continue to operate far beyond March 2022."

The centre is the only one that is commissioned in Suffolk, and provides a nursery along with children's centre services through outreach, home visiting, and services from five rooms on the site, the county council's cabinet report said.

A spokesman for the county council said Highfield had never been earmarked for closure, and the move was 'retrospectively ratifying what Highfield offers'.

The county also originally wanted to move Newmarket's Foley House to a part-time operation, but the county changed its mind last month.

Newmarket town councillor Kevin Yarrow welcomed the Wellington Street centre’s reprieve.

“It is good news for Newmarket but I am concerned that closing and cutting centres in the county will prove very expensive in the long term as many families will not get the support they need,” said the Labour councillor.

And Village Rise centre in Lowestoft will now be a part-time centre, instead of it becoming a nursery.

Conservative Mary Evans, the county council's cabinet member for children's services, education and skills, said the proposals were focused on "strengthening our current offer for Suffolk’s most vulnerable families and improving services for young people aged 0-19 right across the county".

"There has been no requirement to save money as part of this review. Buildings don’t make this kind of service a success, people do. This proposal puts more money into providing the staff and services that families and young people really need," she said.

"I am pleased to say that by reducing spending on buildings we will be switching money to employing more staff to work with vulnerable families."

She said the money saved by reducing spending on buildings will be spent on employing 12 extra staff. The county has said there will be a focus on outreach work, which they said would mean they could offer tailored support for isolated and vulnerable families.

Just over a month ago the county were set to agree the proposals, but pulled the plans at the last minute because of errors discovered in council paperwork. Opposition councillors branded the move "a shambles".

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