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Derbyshire council’s decision to close ten children’s centres is upheld despite calls to reconsider cuts

Derbyshire council has had its decision to close 10 children’s centres upheld despite calls from opposition councillors and protesters who had urged the local authority to reconsider the controversial closures.

The Conservative-led county council approved the closure of the children’s centres during a Cabinet meeting in April with over 100 potential job cuts and the ‘disestablishment’ of its Early Help Service with the introduction of a new Family Help service to achieve a £3.9m savings target.

And despite Labour councillors’s claims that the Cabinet had not considered the impact and the possible subsequent extra costs, chairperson, Cllr Kewal Singh Athwal, confirmed at a scrutiny committee meeting on May 20 that the decision will stand after a majority of councillors felt there had been ‘no breach’.

Following the meeting, Derbyshire Labour’s Deputy Leader, Cllr Ruth George, said: “I think it’s very disappointing that the committee did not take into account the absolute factual evidence that was put before them from their own community safety officers that was not reflected in the Cabinet report with very serious dangers to vulnerable children and young people.”

She added: “It’s a real danger. I met families in my own area in need of support and it’s that one-to-one personal support – that someone cares about you – that makes a difference to be able to turn your lives around.”

The Cabinet agreed on April 29 to reduce the council’s 22 children centres to 12 with closures at centres in Holme Hall and Old Whittington in Chesterfield, Alfreton, Ironville, Langley Mill, Bolsover, Hadfield, Gamesley, Matlock, and Charnos in Ilkeston.   

But it agreed to retain 12 centres including: Heanor, Glossop, Fairfield at Buxton, Brimington near Chesterfield, Birdholme in Chesterfield, Alice’s View at North Wingfield, Shirebrook, Creswell, Eckington, Cotmanhay at Ilkeston, Long Eaton and Woodville.  

The agreed new Early Help Service also aims to include parenting assessments, family supervised sessions, tracking and supporting school leavers, group work with vulnerable youngsters, family help, support for other organisations, parenting programmes and support for expectant parents and families and for children from birth to five-years-old.    

However, Labour councillors, with support from Liberal Democrats, ‘called-in’ the Cabinet decision for reconsideration at a scrutiny meeting on the alleged grounds the council had not fully considered the impact of closures on children and families along with the impact of the possible extra costs of dealing with children in crisis without the support of the centres.   

During the scrutiny meeting, Cllr George argued the council’s report does not take into account all the material considerations, that the decision was unable to demonstrate that it is proportionate to the desired outcomes, and that it contradicts statutory regulations and it is unclear about the savings.

Cllr George also argued the report does not consider increased future expenditure, and the changes will have a detrimental effect on vulnerable youngsters, and that the report fails to demonstrate how it complies with the Sure Start children’s centres statutory guidance.

She said: “These cuts have been proposed on the basis the council needs to save significant amounts of money – that is the reason for these proposals – but the decision is a false economy causing a risk of meeting much more expensive services.”

Cllr George argued even the report states the decision may amount to a false economy because it involves a risk of causing a growth in demand for other, more expensive services and she added that later crisis intervention is significantly more expensive than Early Help intervention.

She added the uncertainty about the level of services available to support social work practice is also likely to have a negative effect on the workforce and the next six months will be challenging and this will impact on the council’s ability to deliver services to a standard previously validated by an Ofsted inspection.

Cllr George said there is a forecast overspend of just over £21m on the portfolio after the use of over £1.5m of departmental reserves, and she added increasing placements for children in care or unable to remain at home has seen an overspend of over £16.6m with rising costs and expenditure while there is a greater number of children coming into care than coming out of care.

She said: “Additional children in crisis mean additional costs on the budget of this council and we have already seen a £16.671m overspend for children in care and unable to stay at home in the current financial year.”

Cllr George claims demand for Early Help and safeguarding services, which she says works with around 5,000 children, are high with a 32per cent increase in contacts to the service this year leading to a four per cent increase in child protection plans, a six per cent increase in children in care and a two per cent increase in children in need.

She added that an appropriate level of skilled workforce is needed which will mean using agency workers to cover vacancies to respond to the high level of demand.

Cllr George also claimed the decision fails to adequately demonstrate how it complies with the Sure Start children’s centres statutory guidance in that the council should not close a children’s centre unless it can demonstrate the outcome for children would not be adversely affected.

She told the meeting the decision will have a ‘detrimental effect on children and some of the most vulnerable’ and that ‘it fails to adequately demonstrate any adverse impact it will have for children and vulnerable people’.

Cllr George also argued that concerns raised in a response from the council’s Community Safety department were not taken into account in the decision making process and that there was no written formal input from the police.

Although, the council indicated a response was received from Community Safety via an officer’s email box rather than the consultation inbox, and although this was omitted from the report, the sense of this aligned with other responses and that police had attended an engagement event in February and made comments similar to others’ feedback.

Cllr George stated she is concerned how the level of risk the decision may have on children and the most vulnerable will be addressed.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Sue Burfoot, who had supported the ‘call-in’, said the council’s decision had needed to be re-examined and even though she recognised the council’s financial pressures she felt it seemed to be ‘the most vulnerable of society’ who would have to ‘pay the price’.

She added that the council decision could prove to be a ‘false economy’ and that the current staff ‘must be devastated’ given the amount of work they have done to improve children’s lives.

Labour Cllr Christine Dale also said she felt the changes were a ‘false economy’ because the costs for later crisis intervention will be more expensive than those for Early Help care.

Cabinet Member for Children and Families, Conservative Cllr Julie Patten, said: “The reason we are here is to protect our children and to protect the service that we provide as a council.”

Cllr Patten identified the impact of escalating costs from profit-making agencies upon the council’s budget which has resulted in overspending on its children care portfolio and she added if the council is to avoid bankruptcy it has to take action and any delays would have a detrimental effect on children and families.

She said: “It is not something we are doing lightly and it is not something we are dong politically. It is something we must do to protect the service for children and families.”

Cllr Patten argued the council report sets out the estimated savings of over £3m to be made with the changes and that there will be a £1m fund available for the next three years to help mitigate future costs.

She also said data for future crisis intervention is difficult to measure and interpret and it cannot measure prevention but the council has considered feedback from partners and there will be contingency planning.

Cllr Patten also said the council will actively intervene and go to and support families because much of its support is not based around centre buildings.

A council officer also argued that the footfall in children’s centres has reduced and has become ‘negligible’ at the centres it aims to close and the ones which will remain open are still significantly used.

Cllr Patten added: “Derbyshire provides a countywide service to children and families where and when they might need it in light of their vulnerabilities and that offer will not change.”

Scrutiny Committee Chairperson, Conservative Cllr Kewal Singh Athwal, recognised the majority of members deemed there had been ‘no breach’ in the council’s decision-making process to close 10 children’s centres and ‘disestablish’ its Early Help Service teams.

Cllr Kewal Singh Athwal said that a contingency fund was in place to help address any future demand for services and he confirmed there had been ‘no breach’ in the council’s decision-making process.

He added: “It’s a very difficult situation we are in. It’s a very emotive subject. Children are very close to all of us.”

The authority previously reduced the number of children’s centres in 2018 from 56 to 22 and the council has stated the latest closures will be at places that are less well-used or where they are close to other larger centres.  

Cllr Patten, has also stated that the council needs to balance its budget while it is facing a growing demand for social care support with spiralling costs for private placements for children in its care. 

Dave Ratchford, UNISON East Midlands regional organiser, said that a petition against the children centre closures had included over 1,000 names and he fears the cuts will be devastating and could result in 132 job cuts. 

Protesters, including union and Labour Party supporters, had previously descended on the council’s headquarters at County Hall, off Bank Road, Matlock, before the Cabinet meeting in April calling for the authority not to close the children’s centres.  

The council has already agreed to consider finalising a number of wider saving proposals to meet its budget deficit of over £39m for the 2024-25 financial year after it has blamed its financial plight on external economic influences. 

It has stressed that like many local authorities it has been struggling due to reduced Government funding, the financial impact from the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation rates, rising costs, the cost of living crisis, and a growing demand on services.

 

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