Councillor pledges to listen to public over Norfolk children’s services cuts

The woman with the task of overseeing cuts in Norfolk's children's services yesterday insisted that she will be guided by what the public thinks about the changes.

County Hall is looking at massive cuts in services as it seeks to bridge a �155m hole in its finances.

But critics fear that proposed cuts, including taking out �4m by scrapping youth services which supports up to 20,000 children, cutting �2.4m of funds to look after children in care, and scrapping the �2m subsidy for school and college transport, will have have a devastating impact.

The authority is also planning a �1.3m cut in family support work, which includes helping reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, fuelling fears that the cuts could lead to greater social problems in years to come.

Last night, Alison Thomas, cabinet member for children's services, said she accepted the cuts would entail difficult decisions and it was crucial that people got in touch to state which services they valued most.

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'I'm a parent, I've got children in schools and college, and I come from a nursing background,' she said. 'Whatever decisions I take, I will try to be as even-handed and fair as possible.

'What we want is for the public to actively take part and really give us feedback and tell us which services they value the most. Clearly, the difficulty within children's services is that every decision taken has a child involved.

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'Whether it's a child sitting on a bus or in a children's home, every decision you make has a direct effect on young people

'For me the most important thing for us to leave intact is everything that surrounds child protection,' she added.

'I would like to say to the public, if people feel strongly that things should be retained, they need to give us that message,' Mrs Thomas said. 'That gives me the opportunity to go back to my colleagues and say we shouldn't make a cut in that area.

'But people need to understand that whatever we defer from one area, we will have to find from another. That's the regrettable position we are left in because of the state of the country.'

Laurie Poulson, principal of East Norfolk Sixth Form College, in Gorleston, warned that the education chances of thousands of Norfolk youngsters will be put at risk by plans to cut subsidies on post-16 transport.

The authority has again included the proposals, which have twice been ditched in the past following massive protests, as it seeks to bridge a �155m funding black hole.

But the changes will see parents and carers forced to pick up the �784 a year bill and has sparked warnings that youngsters, particularly from low -income families, could be put off their studies.

Mr Poulson said the plans would have a 'dramatic effect', particularly on less well-off families, and could price people out of higher education.

'When you combine that with the effect of government's announcement that the educational maintenance allowance is being reduced, that will hit the poorest young people,' he said. 'The last time they tried to do this, it was recognised that this was an investment in the future. It's an obligation, not a choice, to make sure that young people are not put off going to higher education.

'It's a question of priorities really,' he added. 'Those families which can afford it will buy cars and we will have even more complaints from our neighbours about congestion.'

Meanwhile, the cuts to youth services have sparked warnings that vulnerable teenagers could be put at risk.

One 18-year-old, who did not want to be named, contacted the EDP to say he was concerned about the changes.

'My mother had come out of prison and started making my life miserable,' the teenager from north Norfolk said. 'The stress of it got right on top of me and I spoke to a Connexions adviser who put me in touch with counsellors at Off Centre.

'That made a huge difference, because I wasn't able to talk about it with friends of family. If it hadn't been for Off Centre and Connexions, I don't know how I would have coped.'

The teenager said he was now studying for his A-levels after the help and support he had received had helped him get his life back on track.

'I accept that they have to make some cuts, but I think youth work is really important,' he added.

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