Council accused of 'misleading' public over children's centre closures

By Gabriella Jozwiak

| 04 February 2019

Providers of early years services in Norfolk have criticised the county council's handling of plans to close dozens of children's centres, with some claiming the authority has "misled" the public.

Norfolk County Council has defended plans to close children's centres

Norfolk County Council last month announced its decision to reconfigure provision via a new Early Childhood and Family Service, to be run from just 15 children's centres across the county.

Under the plans, 38 of the existing 53 children's centres will close.

A £5.2m budget to provide "targeted support for families with children aged 0-5" includes a £250,000 annual fund for "community development work, to help to ensure a strong network of support in communities", according to a council statement.

Council papers list 160 school clubs, breakfast clubs, community groups, early years settings, and parent and toddler groups throughout the county, which children and families will be "supported to access".

However, managers at a local community centre, a school and a pre-school, described the council's list as "misleading". They said the authority had not checked with them prior to the announcement what provision is available.

Silver Road Community Centre manager Julie Brociek-Coulton said she had little capacity to provide sessions for children and families affected by the closure of children's centres.

"We might have one afternoon free in September, but that's about it," said Brociek-Coulton, a Labour councillor. "If no one comes to talk to us, we can't keep it [available]."

Brociek-Coulton is also secretary for the Sewell Toy Library, which she has run from North City children's centre for five years - one of the centres set to close.

When it does, she hopes to move the weekly session to the Silver Road Community Centre. But she said that first she will have to find sponsorship, as this will incur a hire cost for the room, whereas the children's centre use came free.

Brociek-Coulton said the council list is misleading because it included private nurseries and paid-for services, which were not free.

"It isn't actually stuff that is available readily for everyone," she said. "When you look at it, there's hardly anything on the list that's going to be free."

Her concerns were echoed by the manager of a local pre-school, who asked not to be named.

The manager was unaware that her venue was listed on the report, and said there was no extra capacity at the paid-for provision offered at the setting.

An infant school teacher, who also declined to give her name, said there was no space on her premises for any open-access provision in the future.

As well as the 15 centres, the council said it would extend year-round provision from its 47 libraries, including bounce and rhyme, stay and chat sessions, and baby weighing clinics.

It expected the proportion it spent on frontline delivery to rise from 39 per cent to 60 per cent, as costs on buildings, management and administration were reduced.

Early years consultant and parish councillor Denise Burke, accused the council of putting "very little thought" into the plans.

Burke said families living in rural areas would be disadvantaged by the changes due to travel issues.

However, the council said in a statement that the work to establish the network was yet to come and the list "was simply of existing groups and activities that families can currently access in communities".

"These groups and activities help build networks of support for families and will complement, not replace, the professional input of the new service," said a council statement.

"The provider of the new service will be working with local families and communities to ensure that the support, activities and advice they need is available in the right places for them."

"This will be different for every community but this kind of outreach will be key to reaching out to more families that need us.

Once the new provider was in place, the council would work with local families and communities "to ensure that the support, activities and advice they need is available in the right places for them", said the council.

Last September, when the proposals were first announced, 41,455 of the county's 47,000 children aged 0-5 years old - about 88 per cent - were registered with their local children's centre service.

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