Council unveils plans to close 21 children's centres

By Megan Agnew

| 11 January 2018

More than half of Leicestershire's children's centres have been earmarked for closure as part of efforts to save £3.8m, placing around 65 jobs at risk.

Leicestershire County Council said it has to make savings totalling £3.8m across early help services. Picture: Leicestershire County Council

Following a meeting earlier this week, members of Leicestershire County Council's cabinet have agreed to launch a consultation on plans for a major reorganisation of early help services in the county.

The proposals will see the number of buildings from which family support services are provided, currently standing at 40 - of which 36 are children's centres - reduced to just 15.

The 15 remaining buildings will provide a merged "family wellbeing service" for 0- to 19-year-olds, incorporating the council's Troubled Families scheme, its children's centres, its youth offending service, and its information services.

Of the 25 buildings in line for closure, 21 are "designated children's centres", although the council has said it will try to find alternative uses for them.

A report on the plans estimates that the changes could result in the loss of 65 of the current 197 frontline jobs across the service - a 33 per cent reduction.

The report states that the changes "may result in families receiving no service, increased waiting times, referral to other partner agencies, or increased workload for staff in children's social care".

"The reduction in funding will clearly result in a reduction of services available to vulnerable families," the report adds.

"The threshold for eligibility to receive services will increase. This risk will need to be tolerated and managed through monitoring of these families and seeking alternative support from partner agencies or community groups where appropriate."

It is estimated that the changes will result in around 290 fewer families receiving help - cutting the number of families getting support from the current 882 down to 592.

Leicestershire County Council said it has to make savings totalling £3.8m across early help services. Its own medium-term financial strategy requires a saving of £1.5m in 2019/20 from early help services.

In addition to this, part of the current early help offer, called Supporting Leicestershire Families, has received funding from the Department for Communities and Families and Local Government (DCLG) via the Troubled Families Programme, but this will cease after 2019/20, resulting in £2.3m less funding.

However, the report also warns that the council could face financial penalties from the Department for Education (DfE) if it proceeds with the plans.

As part of Sure Start funding arrangements, local authorities are required to notify the DfE of proposals to "dispose of or change the use of buildings or assets funded wholly or partly through Sure Start capital grants", and must provide details of the level of early years services that will continue.

The DfE then decides whether the council is continuing to provide a sufficient level of early years services to meet the original aims of the grant. If it decides they are not, it is able to reclaim capital funding.

The report states that the maximum possible cost to Leicestershire County Council, if all 21 children's centres identified for re-designation were subject to clawback, would be in the region of £5.8m, but adds that this is "not expected and can be significantly mitigated".

"DfE guidance indicates that to avoid clawback, any centres that are re-designated into other uses must be utilised for 60 per cent of their time to support children under the age of five, and efforts will be made to consider transfers to other bodies to achieve this," the report adds.

Leicestershire has previously had money clawed back by the DfE following the closure of an early years setting.

The 12-week consultation is due to be completed by April. Final proposals will be put before the council's cabinet in the summer.

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