All 44 of Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centres and 7 Early Intervention Hubs will have their funding withdrawn by September as a result of a County Council cabinet vote at County Hall affecting 30,000 under 19s. On Tuesday, despite pleas from the Prime Minister and his family, 2,700 consultation responses and a revised budget, a Conservative Cabinet containing just 7 members decided that the Council should stop funding the centres from September.
Hopes for the centres were raised last week when an extra £2m was freed up by amendments to the budget, in addition to £1m promised by central government. The extra money was reported to be earmarked for Children’s Centres, which provide activities and support for families with young children, at the budget meeting. Yet on Tuesday the Conservative cabinet pressed ahead with the decision to withdraw funding dashing the hopes of campaigners who had urged the council to reconsider how the centres might be able to be kept open on reduced budgets.
As late as the morning of the vote campaigners urged councillors to question whether the closures were the best thing for the children of Oxfordshire. The e-mail, from Save Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centres which was sent to all councillors on Tuesday 23rd, reads “Without children’s centres struggling families will get no help until things spiral out of control and are picked up by the NHS, police or schools. This is not early intervention. Under the proposed 8 centre model there would be no early intervention, only more costly involvement at a later stage.”
However following a private cabinet meeting before the vote the cabinet, who represent the divisions of Bicester North, Berinsfield & Garsington, Charlbury & Wychwood, Faringdon, Henley, Kingston & Cumnor and Thame, voted unanimously to accept the 8 centre model.
The 8 new Children and Family Centres will cost £1.9m in capital to set up and £12m per year to run, (using £8m from the Early Intervention budget and £4m from the Social Services budget). This compares to the £16m cost of the existing 44 Children’s Centres and 7 Early Intervention Hubs. The new model would reach 1,500 children across Oxfordshire, compared with the current 30,000. Due to the reduction in numbers reached, under the new model the cost per child will increase from £500 to £5,000 per year.
2,700 people responded to the Children’s Centres Consultation with 71% saying that they wanted ‘none’ of the proposals put forward by the Council. In addition nearly 8,000 people signed a petition to keep the Centres open, and over 2,000 people pledged not to ‘vote for any county councillor who votes to close the children’s centres’. David Cameron, his mother and his aunt also became involved. The Prime Minister wrote a letter to the Leader of the Council calling the closures “unwelcome and counterproductive”, his mother signed the children’s centre petition and his aunt, Clare Currie, attended numerous protests against the closures. However, following the advice of officers, the Cabinet accepted the preferred 8 centre model, despite it being the least popular amongst those consulted.
As recently as 10th February the council was suggesting that up to 30 centres might be ‘saved’ if district, town and parish councils step in. But presentations to cabinet suggested only 11 current centres will be given any sort of cash injection and only then to assist a new government initiative around child care. These centres would no longer be funded to provide activities or support to families but would instead operate as nurseries. The 8 new centres will be referral-only services for families who have been identified as vulnerable by professional partners, e.g. police, NHS or schools.
Charlie Payne a mum of two and part of the Save Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centre campaign said
“Unfortunately the council have ignored the voices of thousands of us who responded to their
consultation. And it’s not just mums against this; the consultation showed that 68% of professional
partners, including social workers, were against this referral-only model. I was at the meeting and
the cabinet members hardly said a word apart from to cast their votes. It was shameful to see that
they had no questions or comments about the future of 30,000 of our children and young people. It
really seemed like they didn’t care.”
Speeches at the meeting indicated dissatisfaction from Labour and Liberal Democrat Councillors. 4
councillors, 2 from each party, spoke out against the plans. Councillor Susanna Pressel said “Please
listen to the consultation and don’t close these centres”. Cllr Pressel also suggested the council could
save money by cancelling the rise in member allowances, of the 27% rise accepted by cabinet
members she said “How could you do this when you knew what was coming?”
Councillor Janet Godden said that, given the £2m additional money, she had expected to see a Plan
B presented, rather than the cabinet pushing forward with pre-existing plans; “Every single time it
was said that the decision would be taken by the full council and that full council might not agree the
additional £2m cut. As we know the council did not agree that cut and I personally expected to see a
cabinet Plan B… We need a full and frank discussion about how the £2m should be spent and it
would be a pity to foreshorten these discussions by already agreeing the fate of these centres”
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