The Oxfordshire County Council Liberal Democrat Group have responded to the consultation on Children's Centrea.
Response of the County Council Lib Dem group to the Consultation on Children’s Centres, Summer 2015
By Cllr Janet Godden in Consultation on Childrens' Centres
[Response of the County Council Lib Dem group to the consultation on children's centres, summer 2015]
- We believe that the implication in the Cabinet report of 15 September 2015 that the options for the children's centres contained in the report were 'recommended by the cross-party group' is misleading. That report did not have the agreement of the Liberal Democrat Group, and the budget for 2015/16 that contained the cut of £6m was not supported by this Group.
- In our opinion none of the three options listed in para 63 of the Cabinet report of 15 September, which formed the basis of the consultation, provides a workable solution. In each case the risks outweigh the economic benefits.
- 6-7 centres across the whole county are not the answer; this point was made several times within the cross-party group. The value of children's centres is that they are run locally and are easily accessible to those who need them. The proposed reduction to 6-7 centres would result in too much unmet need. Of particular concern is the acknowledged risk that targeted services will be seen as stigmatising and will reduce the willingness of families to work with professionals.
- The term 'universal services' is a misnomer when used as a justification for removing provision. It encourages the erroneous view that the centres are little more than popular playgroups. All the centres are different, and people's needs are different.
- The many moving emails of support we have all had from centre users are clear about the importance attached to the care and advice received from experienced, professional staff. This work could not be done by volunteers.
- Oxfordshire is ranked 1st amongst statistical neighbours for proportion of children centres judged to be good or outstanding. It would be tragic to lose this resource, and once gone and the premises put to other uses they could never be replaced.
- It would be short-termism in the extreme to close these centres. Their value is not just in ensuring 'school-readiness' but in whole family support, contributing to the success of the thriving families programme. We note the case of services for older people, where years of reducing services and accumulating unmet need led to the Care Act of 2014 formalising Adult Safeguarding Boards with a remit that includes prevention. Do we want to repeat this cycle with children's services?
- Children's centres are often the location chosen by parents for contact visits, care plan meetings and other potentially stressful occasions. We think this choice should be retained and seen as a further example of the value of the centres to those who need them.
- We understand the pressures on children's social care. Nevertheless we cannot accept the lack of justice in taking away the budget for less needy families in order to shore up services for the more needy.
- Reductions in local government funding are the direct result of national government policy, and counter-deficit measures have fallen disproportionately on local government. The Cabinet and the county's Tory MPs have failed to lobby sufficiently or appropriately. It is disappointing that the intervention of the MP for Witney was seen as undermining the Oxfordshire Cabinet's case for closure rather than as a wake-up call to the Cabinet to find another solution.
- We believe that there should be no enforced closures. We also think that piecemeal funding of individual centres by accumulations of small grants from various local sources will prove unsustainable, especially when these cannot commit in the long term. It is also likely to lead to a postcode lottery of provision.
- Securing the permanent future of the centres will take some time. It has been wrong to suppose that it will not, especially in view of the lack of proper costing work on individual centres carried out before the consultation (despite requests from the cross-party advisory group).
- We therefore believe that full funding should be guaranteed for the years 2016/17 and 17/18 while alternative funding streams are put together, and sensible, viable economies are actively sought and made.
- The centre managers have already made suggestions for management efficiencies, the streamlining of some services and introducing charging mechanisms where feasible. All these should be properly evaluated acted on.
- Activities provided at the centres by other agencies - for instance, pre- and post-natal care, adult learning, debt & benefits advice - are much valued, and for the agencies themselves the children's centre settings are a means of taking services to their own users. These valuable arrangements should be set on a formal footing and appropriate contributions agreed towards premises and overhead costs.
The retention of the children's centres would mean that most early intervention services could be run from the larger centres within each district council area, combined with agile working. Office space within the existing hub buildings would not be needed, and local halls could be rented for youth activities that currently take place there. The existing hub buildings would not be needed resulting in a significant saving.
- The last few months have seen a growing understanding among other councils and agencies of the harm that is resulting from heavy reductions in county council funding, and the need for others to step forward to help their communities. We therefore propose a formal public approach to the five district councils in Oxfordshire, asking them to contribute realistically to the funding of the children's centres in their areas, and for this to be recognised by appropriate participation in the running of the centres. We believe that the district councils have 'wellbeing' responsibilities within which this work would fit.
- We believe that any remaining shortfall after two years should be regarded as a legitimate budget pressure and funded.