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Plan to cut £5m from children’s centres budget could take step forward today

PUBLISHED: 07:00 16 January 2018 | UPDATED: 08:09 16 January 2018

Parents at the children's centre in Bowthorpe. 
Photo: Bill Smith

Parents at the children's centre in Bowthorpe. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant

They have been a source of support for Norfolk families for more than a decade. With the future of children’s centres under the spotlight, Lauren Cope reports.

Emma CorlettEmma Corlett

A controversial plan to cut £5m from Norfolk’s children’s centres could today take a step forward.

Norfolk County Council’s children’s services committee will meet this morning to decide whether the proposed £5m saving - half of the total allotted to commission the centres - should be pushed forward to full council when it sets next year’s budget in February.

The council is reviewing the future of the 53 centres, and has considered options including mergers with libraries and limiting who can use them.

MORE: Cutting £5m from budget for children’s centres is ‘too high risk’, say critics

The Earlham Early Years Centre. Picture: James BassThe Earlham Early Years Centre. Picture: James Bass

As local government budgets tighten, it’s not the first time that children’s centres have faced cuts - councils elsewhere around the country have scrapped many of theirs.

But Emma Corlett, a Labour county councillor on the committee, said: “If we are serious about closing the quality gap and making sure all children have the best start in life then children’s centres are the best way of doing that.”

Ed Maxfield, a Liberal Democrat councillor on the committee, agreed that the council should reconsider.

“It’s a huge chunk to take out of the budget,” he said. “Given that the council is considering increasing council tax by up to 6pc next year, they should really think whether some of that could be used to sustain the centres.”

MORE: Plea from parents to protect Norfolk’s under-threat children’s centres

Diss Infant and Nursery School with Children's Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYDiss Infant and Nursery School with Children's Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

He said the county council needed to have a “proper plan” for its services for children.

In a council consultation on the suggestions, 335 people responded.

Almost 150 spoke about the centres being “essential” and more than 210 said that all families should be eligible to attend, though just over 110 agreed that the service should be reviewed.

One respondent warned that only allowing some families to attend could be seen as “labelling or condescending”.

Stuart Dark, acting chairman of children’s services committee, said the council wanted to focus on those “who need [the centres] most” - and said the proposals would still see the council spend more on children’s centres than many other local authorities.

“Children’s services, like the rest of the council, have to save money,” he said. “Reviewing contracts that were last looked at several years ago presents an opportunity to do this, reflecting the fact that services provided from children’s centres now attract additional funding from the NHS and elsewhere.”

Could help move online?

Families could be offered more guidance and support online, documents suggest.

In the meeting agenda, the council says families’ needs have changed, with many turning to digital support.

“Parents/carers increasingly go online, open up an app or ask their peers for information and advice via WhatsApp, rather than go to a children’s centre building,” the documents say.

Elsewhere it says the council hopes to “increase the amount of support available for parents/carers online”.

In the consultation, several respondents said more online support would be helpful - but that it could not replace centres.

One said: “The children’s centres are amazing and I have been relying on them so much with both my children. The idea that an app or WhatsApp could in any way replace what they provide is ridiculous.

“Getting out of the house, meeting other parents and children is so important. You can feel so lonely as a new parent.”

MORE: Almost 3,000 sign petition calling for Norfolk’s children’s centres to be protected

A factfile

Initially created in a bid to reduce child poverty, Sure Start centres were introduced in the early 2000s.

In 2004, the Labour government said it would provide funding for 2,500 centres by 2008 - a target later adjusted to 3,500 by 2010.

The first wave in Norfolk focused on its bigger settlements, with rushes in both 2005 and 2008, and many in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.

According to government data, the first centre to open locally was the Thorpe Hamlet and Dussindale one, now run by Action for Children, which opened in 2003 on Wolfe Road.

Cuts in local government cash has meant children’s centres have never been far from the chop - in February, Oxfordshire closed all 44 of its centres.

Though largely loved by families, the scheme has been criticised for failing to achieve its goal of reaching particularly disadvantaged families.

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