CROYDON COMMENTARY: The cash-strapped council waited until the week after the London elections and local by-elections to reveal its latest plans for swingeing cuts to children’s services. PAUL WADDELL, right, says residents ought not allow this to happen without a fight
In the wake of our town’s bankruptcy due to a combination of a decade of Conservative austerity squeezing council budgets and mismanagement from the previous Labour leadership under Tony Newman, the current administration is now proposing a swingeing £1million a year cut to Croydon’s provision of its Best Start Children’s Centres.
The partnership includes families, health visitors, midwives, GPs, early learning practitioners and children’s centres working together to ensure babies and under-fives have the best start in life. It stems from the Sure Start flagship policy introduced by Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown in 1998, and in the past 20 years has been widely acknowledged as helping to improve the lives, and life-chances, of young children and their families.
According to Croydon Council, the role of children’s centres, as set out in the Sure Start Children’s Centre statutory guidance, is to support:
- child development and school readiness
- parenting aspirations and parenting skills
- child and family health and life chances
A public consultation went live on the council website last week.
“The council’s financial challenges mean it has to make savings and this means changing the way it delivers some services and reducing others,” they admit. While stating that, “Services for parents and carers with young children remain a priority”, they add, worryingly, “We are committed to providing the right Croydon Best Start services, in the right places, with the budget available”.
Judged by the consultation, “the right places” are not in the south of the borough, because that is where most of the cuts are to be made.
The consultation assumes a drastic funding cut, from the £2.162million budget that has been in place since 2016, down to £1.162million per year. This will see the closure of a number of sites.
The proposals suggest the survival of only three fully operational “hub” children’s centres, with six “spoke” locations offering a reduced programme of services.
A cynical reader might look at the location of the hubs and spokes and see a connection to electorally important council wards and constituencies, with particular attention paid to the north of the borough.
Five of the nine proposed hubs and spokes are to the north of Northcote Road, by Selhurst Station. The remaining hub and three spokes are shared between the whole rest of the borough.
There are good arguments for why the sites with continuing provision have been chosen.
Access to these services is vital in areas of lower affluence, and socio-economic factors are an important part of outcomes both for parents and children. There are short- and longer-term cost savings to be made from treating early years funding as an investment. Public Health England’s Health Matters guidance can provide more insight into this.
Having said all that, if we believe investment in early years support is so vital, it’s important that those who would require access to those services in other parts of the borough remain able to reach support reasonably easily.
For example, in the long-neglected south of the borough, the closure of the excellent Purley Oaks Children’s Centre, which attracts parents and children from South Croydon, Park Hill and Whitgift, Purley Oaks and Riddlesdown, and Sanderstead wards, leaves a stark level of under-provision in comparison with the North.
Similar arguments will be made to those associated with the ongoing attempts to close Purley Pool: that residents of South Croydon, Kenley and Purley should board multiple buses in order to travel to Waddon to use alternate facilities, with little regard to their practical accessibility.
Campaigners worried about the threat to the borough’s libraries may also be familiar with the pattern of cuts.
Nicola James, a parent of three young children who uses the Purley Oaks centre, is upset. “These children’s centres are an absolute lifeline,” she said.
“The kids love the activities, and I get the chance to ask for advice on parenting or my children’s development. I needed additional support with my first child, and the weekly chats with staff and parents there kept me above water and prevented me needing formal mental health interventions.”
A representative from the Purley Oaks Children’s Centre agrees. “We are extremely saddened by Croydon Council’s proposals.
“Experience tells us that families, especially vulnerable families, access services where they feel they have built trust with the staff team. As an extremely successful centre, we have made enormous contributions in relation to parenting confidence, child development, emotional wellbeing, and school readiness.”
When parts of the borough get neglected in this way, it lends weight to the arguments made by the DEMOC campaign, who think a mayoralty that has to be concerned with the whole of the borough wouldn’t make such cynical decisions.
Given that slashing the budget doesn’t seem up for debate, it appears that, unfortunately, children’s services aren’t the priority that the council claims them to be. The results of the consultation will be with us after the closing date of June 13.
It’s unlikely that local residents will accept the council’s plan without a fight.
- Paul Waddell works in the NHS and was a Labour Party candidate for the 2018 council elections. He writes here in a personal capacity
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