Oxfordshire children’s centres set to close after council vote

Oxfordshire County Council logo NNL-160225-131148001
Oxfordshire County Council logo NNL-160225-131148001

The fight for Oxfordshire’s children’s centres appears to have been lost after cabinet members voted to stop funding the centres.

Campaigners continued until the last minute to plead with the county councillors to spare the children’s centres. During the long consultation period up to Tuesday’s final decision, the Prime Minister and Witney MP David Cameron, his mother Mary and aunt Claire Currie had joined thousands of others calling for the children’s centres to be protected.

The 44 centres will be replaced by eight intervention hubs to deal with the county’s statutory obligations to children needing protection.

Hopes for the centres had been raised last week when an extra £2m was freed up by amendments to the county budget in addition to £1m promised by central government.

The extra money was reported to be earmarked for Children’s Centres, which provide activities and support for families with young children, at the budget meeting. But on Tuesday the Conservative cabinet pressed ahead with the decision to withdraw funding.

Lead member for children, Cllr Melinda Tilley said: “The reality is that current financial pressures and rising demand alone – never mind future savings – would mean having to redesign services at this very point in time.

“What we are proposing is the safest possible system that protects vulnerable families and links effectively with other agencies. Our priority is keeping children safe and supporting the most vulnerable families.”

As late as the morning of the vote campaigners urged councillors to question whether the closures were the best thing for the children of Oxfordshire.

An e-mail from Save Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centres Campaign which was sent to all councillors on Tuesday said: “Without children’s centres struggling families will get no help until things spiral out of control and are picked up by the NHS, police or schools.

“This is not early intervention. Under the proposed eight-centre model there would be no early intervention, only more costly involvement at a later stage.”

Campaigners say the loss of children’s centres will affect 30,000 children under 19-years-old.

Charlie Payne a mum of two and part of the Save Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centre campaign said “Unfortunately the council have ignored the voices of thousands of us who responded to their consultation. And it’s not just mums against this; the consultation showed that 68 per cent of professional partners, including social workers, were against this referral-only model.

“I was at the meeting and the cabinet members hardly said a word apart from to cast their votes. It was shameful to see that they had no questions or comments about the future of 30,000 of our children and young people. It really seemed like they didn’t care.”

In his report to cabinet, director of children’s services, Jim Leivers, said volume and activity in Oxfordshire and elsewhere since 2011/12 has shown ‘dramatic increases’.

“Between March 2011 and March 2015 the number of children on a child protection plan rose from 332 to 569, a rise of 71 per cent (compared with a national rise of 16 per cent). The ‘looked after’ population rose from 427 at March 2011 to 514 at March 2015 a rise of 20 per cent compared to a national rise of 4 per cent. Since March the number of looked after children has risen further to 585,” he said.

A county press statement said the eight proposed centres would provide a base for the service and would operate intensively throughout the day, providing a degree of open-access services and be a base for outreach work. There would also be a mobile bus service to deliver services to rural communities.

Their overall focus would be on providing support to those families who most need it, including on issues such as domestic violence, substance misuse and parental mental health as well as readiness for school and parenting advice.

Councillors voted in favour of:

• Formation of eight children and family centres to deliver services that meet the authority’s statutory and deliver statutory and targeted services to vulnerable children and families

• Limited open access services provided from within the eight centres

• A mobile bus to deliver services to rural communities and the traveller

• Continuing to support the child care in current children’s centres through to April 2017. During this time the council will work with the centres to ensure they are financially self-sufficient from April 2017.

• Continue conversations with organisations and groups that wish to find alternative funding streams to enable centres to remain open.