Council brushes off claims of '£16m bill' for children's centre closures
A council has brushed off concerns that it could face a multi-million pound bill if it pushes ahead with planned children's centre closures.
Revised plans by Norfolk County Council will see 38 of the county’s 53 children’s centres shut – eight fewer than in initial proposals – in a bid to cut its children’s services budget.
But a councillor has claimed the closures could land the authority with a £16m bill – thanks to a repayment clause in children’s centre funding agreements.
Under the Sure Start scheme, launched by Tony Blair’s government in 1999, local councils received capital grants to set up children’s centres. But a clawback system in the contract means local authorities could be forced to repay grants if the children’s centres are closed down.
Ed Maxfield, Liberal Democrat member of Norfolk County Council’s children’s services committee, calculated the total “potential clawback liability” for the 38 children’s centres under threat. He does not feel enough attention has been paid to the “risk” the liabilities pose.
“The only plan seems to be to ‘find out what other councils are doing’. It seems that councillors are being asked to agree to taking a huge leap in the dark that could cost local taxpayers millions of pounds,” he said.
Childcare minister Sam Gyimah clarified the government’s position on clawbacks in 2016, saying local authorities would be liable for repayments if they “dispose of or change the use of buildings or other assets” funded through Sure Start capital grants.
Local councils have to notify the Department for Education of proposed changes to services, which will then consider if the council has “continued to offer a sufficient level of early years service for children and their families from the building in question to meet the original aims of the grant”.
A Norfolk County Council spokesman stressed that the council would only be liable for repayments if buildings “did not continue to be used for early years services and associated activities” such as play and childcare.
He said: “As part of our planning for the proposed new service, we have undertaken a detailed review of all potential liabilities. We have had expressions of interest from childcare providers, schools and voluntary sector organisations, to ensure provision continues without the risk of clawback.
“The Department for Education is aware of our proposals and we will continue to have ongoing dialogue with the relevant teams.”