Budget slash for Norfolk’s children’s centres moves forward, but councillors clash over decision
- Credit: © ARCHANT NORFOLK PHOTOGRAPHIC
Plans to halve the £10m budget for Norfolk's children's centre services have taken a step forward.
Norfolk County Council has proposed cutting the budget to commission the county's 53 centres by £5m, as it looks to plug a £125m funding gap by 2021/22.
Thousands of people signed a petition against the plans and more than 330 responded to the council's consultation, which has considered options including merging the centres with other community facilities and targeting who can access them.
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And councillors clashed at its children's services committee meeting today, where it was decided to put the recommendation - and other money-saving proposals - forward to budget-setting meetings in February.
While one councillor branded the plans for children's centres 'reckless,' another said they were a way of 'providing a service fit for the future'.
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Labour's David Collis said it was important to make sure face-to-face support for families was maintained.
'Where you are offering this service is very important… It's very important to know how we are going to do that,' he said.
'We want to establish that rapport with the people who are in need of this service and to maintain that. I would argue that there is a very clear requirement for face to face contact.'
Conservative John Fisher said the proposals were 'providing a service fit for the future'.
But Labour's Emma Corlett said the consultation did not make clear how the services would change.
'I do not accept that you can remove half a budget and say there will be no impact on services,' she said.
She described the proposal as 'reckless' in the current climate and that she was 'baffled' how councillors could support it without more information.
But Sarah Jones, the council's acting assistant director for early help, said: 'We are in a bit of a chicken and egg situation, where if I had decided to produce the level of detail we all want in isolation and then things had changed, I would be open to criticism about not being transparent.
'I wanted it to be out as early as possible, so we are speaking to members and to providers to help them design it. I do hear you, but I think the approach we have taken is the right one.'
A later motion to see a cross-party group set up to work through the plans was defeated.
As debate came to a close, executive director of children's services Sara Tough said: 'It is important to remember this is part of a wider strategic piece of work that is part of that wider transformation about how we work as a council and being much more community facing.'
It came among five proposals - which were jointly approved and put forward to February's budget-setting - for the committee to consider, which, from 2018 to 2022, are expected to save £10.5m in total.
They include a £5m saving by reducing the number of looked-after children in Norfolk, which has increased 'significantly' in recent years, officers say.
During debate, Liberal Democrat councillor Ed Maxfield questioned whether the council was confident it could deliver its outcome on its four-year timescale, and Mrs Corlett raised concerns over relying on a measure which was largely out of its control.
The five proposals also included reducing legal expenses by £284,000, by fine tuning when legal experts are needed, and increasing income for early years training by £90,000 by charging more.
Mrs Corlett asked for reassurance over the impact on early years providers, many who have struggled to cope financially with recent government changes.
Chris Snudden, assistant director for children's services, said they were 'very mindful' of the concerns.
Reducing the department's reliance on agency social workers, and recruiting more permanent staff, to save £200,000 was also on the list.