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Children's centres shake-up decision should be put on hold – trade union

A decision on the revamp of children’s centre services in Suffolk should not be made while the coronavirus crisis continues, a trade union has warned.

But according to the council just 35 per cent of consultation respondents disagreed with the plans, which would reduce the number of centres and instead offer a bolstered outreach service.

Proposals outlined last year revealed Suffolk County Council was planning a shake-up of the system which would see two of the 38 children’s centres close entirely – Caterpillar in Woodbridge and Chatterbox in Ipswich – while seven would become nurseries and 11 reduced to part-time hours. Sixteen would remain open full time.

Suffolk County Council is based at Endeavour House (35403158)
Suffolk County Council is based at Endeavour House (35403158)

In its place, the council plans to offer more outreach providing the same services as existing centres, such as baby massage and post-natal support, and cater for ages 0-19 instead of 0-5.

Vocal campaigners against the new model said the centres were lifelines for parents.

The proposals are set to go before the cabinet in July for a final decision, but Unison eastern regional organiser Winston Dorsett said this should be put on ice.

He said: “Suffolk County Council wants to rush through its shake-up to children’s centres while everyone else is busy worrying about the biggest public health crisis in generations."

“Council chiefs know this shake-up is controversial — that’s why they put it on the back-burner during last year’s general election.

“And they quite rightly paused the process in recent weeks.

“To now plough on when staff, service-users and the wider public are unable to effectively contribute to the discussion is simply not right.

“The council must hit the pause button until it can properly analyse what children’s services are required in Suffolk in the world after Covid-19.”

While the full results of the consultation held at the start of this year have not been published, Conservative cabinet member for education Mary Evans said 35 per cent of 940 completed surveys were against the new model.

She said: “There is simply no evidence of us looking to rush this process. We are following a standard approach that has given everyone plenty of opportunity to become involved with what we propose."

“The support of our staff is an invaluable part of these proposals and we have communicated clearly with our teams across the county throughout the process to ensure they were in receipt of the facts and everybody had the opportunity to seek further detail or support as required. As I stressed at the beginning of the consultation there will be no job losses and any consequential savings will be reinvested into the service.

“On this basis it is right that we should progress to the next stage of service development by debating and making a decision on the proposals in July, given the comprehensive feedback we have received. It is a critical point to note that we will be taking a decision on the strategic principles of the service at the cabinet meeting and not the detailed operational processes for each centre. That work will follow the cabinet decision where we would carefully look at what practicalities should be required for each centre, if the proposal is agreed.”

The plans when they were unveiled last year were mooted to be saving the authority around £1million per year, but Mrs Evans said that savings were being reinvested into the revamped system.

Cllr Jack Abbott, education spokesman for the opposition Labour group, said: “There are clear indications that the effects of coronavirus have disproportionately hit disadvantaged families. Further cuts to Suffolk’s children’s centres, before we even know what the full impact of this pandemic looks like, is perversely counter-intuitive."

“To carry out such a fundamental change to these life-changing centres, at a time when the council are not meeting properly due to social distancing measures, is irresponsible.

“We need to have the confidence that the evidence is fully up to date and recognises the impact that coronavirus has had on our society; that the public can fully engage in the process; and that decision makers can be properly scrutinised and held to account.”

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