Revamp of Suffolk's children's centres to go ahead after challenge rejected
Suffolk County Council’s Conservative administration last month agreed to shake-up the service into a ‘family hubs’ model which will see two children’s centres – Caterpillar Children’s Centre in Woodbridge and Chatterbox in Ipswich – close entirely, eight centres handed back to schools or nurseries they are attached to and 11 reduce to part time hours.
It aims to reduce the amount of spend on the buildings and pump the money saved into outreach provision.
But the opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent groups challenged the way the decision had been reached, claiming there was a lack of financial analysis around the £435,000 figure published as savings in building costs, a lack of financial analysis of any clawback from the Department for Education and insufficient clarity on how much outreach could be delivered.
A special meeting of the council’s scrutiny committee was convened for Friday, in which the challenge was rejected by eight votes to four.
Conservative cabinet member for children’s services, Mary Evans, said that the cabinet had already had information from previous reports by the task group that first began looking at the issue, and said that cabinet was not required to take decisions on expenditure under £500,000.
She added: “Cabinet’s role is to take strategic decisions.
“We rely upon our officers who are the professionals and are experienced, and responsible for the day-to-day running of the service, to produce the figures on which we base our decisions.
“We have to take the figures as presented to us in the whole. I would contest very strongly that cabinet had more than sufficient information on which to base its decision.”
Mrs Evans added that a potential clawback from the DfE on its investment in early years education would be minimal because most centres that were closing were being repurposed for nursery and school provision which still catered for the age group.
Jack Abbott, children’s services spokesman for the Labour group said: “On principal, I believe that the family hub model if funded properly and not diminishing existing provision has the potential to be effective – particularly if we can deliver more services and better outreach in a largely rural county.
“However, these proposals lack concrete evidence that the model works as promised, that it will deliver value for money and deliver the best outcomes for both children and families.”
Mr Abbott cited the mistakes found in the footfall data published in July which forced the cabinet decision to be delayed by a month, and added: “If it’s an evidence-led approach and if your data significantly changes then surely you come to a different decision? I find it extraordinary that we can have such massive wavering footfall data but it makes no difference to the final decision.”
The new model aims to enable people in the hardest to reach areas to benefit from services and cater for 0-19 year olds instead of the current 0-5 offering.
The £435,000 saved in costs maintaining buildings is to be used to recruit 12 new outreach workers.
But opposition parties raised concerns that shutting the centres themselves would deny families a safe space to enjoy the services.
Children’s services spokeswoman for the Lib Dem, Green and Independent group, Penny Otton, said: “I am pleased to see that the scrutiny papers now finally include some details of the savings per centre, but I want to stress that the cabinet should have seen this information before making their decision.
“It is too late to provide this information now. When I look at that data, I think it is clear that the 10 centres which are closing provide really good value for money. Maybe the cabinet would have thought the same and made a different decision. The point is, they should have had the chance to carefully consider this information.”