Essex; Fears that the closure of children’s centres will increase social inequality

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Proposals to close children’s centres in north Essex will lead to an increase in social inequality and a loss of vital support services for young families, critics have warned.

Essex County Council has launched a consultation into the future of its 85 children’s centres and has put forward plans aimed at making savings of £2.5m in response to funding cuts from central government.

Children’s centres were formerly known as Sure Start centres under the last Labour government who developed a countrywide network of locations where services could be offered to families with children aged nought to five years old.

The new proposals will see 11 centres close and 37 centres become ‘delivery sites’ offering reduced services. In north Essex, centres in Clacton, Colchester, Manningtree and Black Notley have been earmarked for closure with a plan that their services are merged with neighbouring centres.

Council chiefs say this revised scenario offers a “new flexible way of working” with funding focused on where it is most needed and disruption kept to a minimum.

But leader of the Labour Group at ECC, councillor Julie Young, opposes the cuts in services and says they contradict Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment not to reduce funding for the centres. She said the proposals were an example of “families, children and young people bearing the brunt of austerity measures while tax cuts are handed to millionaires”.

She added: “Families are really feeling the pressure, with the bedroom tax, reduction in council tax support, cuts in the youth service and now children’s centres.

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“Children’s centres provide a whole range of services but their core offer is to give children the best start in life.”

Colchester mother Paul Goddard, who has two children aged seven and three and has benefited from the use of centre in the Greenstead area of the town, said she felt a reduction in services was bound to have a negative impact on mothers - especially single mums who have little family support and families struggling financially.

She said: “I don’t think the government realises how important these centres are to the community - they offer free activities, health advice and support on a range of issues from housing and breast-feeding to post-natal depression and looking for a job.”

But ECC’s cabinet member with responsibility for families and children, Dick Madden, said the financial challenges faced by the council mean that all services are having to be reviewed.

“Children’s centre services are an important part of delivering early support for children young people and their families in Essex,” he said.

“We have actively worked with our children’s centre providers to make sure that the impact this has on services is kept to a minimum. I truly believe that this new flexible way of working, which focuses on services rather than sites, will mean that the children’s centre staff will be able to provide the services that families need and want.”

Tracy Maxwell-Jones, director of children and family services at 4Children, which delivers services from children centres in Braintree, Chelmsford and Maldon, said the proposed model had been “tried and tested across the country”.

She added: “The model chosen by Essex as main sites and delivery sites bears a close resemblance to models which 4Children have pioneered as one of the major providers of children’s centres in the country. We believe it offers the opportunity to maximise resources, provide flexible utilisation of the workforce, whilst maintaining and enhancing front line services.”

Details of the consultation, which runs until December 5, can be found at www.essex.gov.uk/childrenscentres website.

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