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Opposition calls for U-turn on Derbyshire council’s decision to close ten children centres

Opposition Labour councillors are calling for Conservative-led Derbyshire County Council to reconsider its controversial decision to close ten children’s centres as part of overall saving plans to meet an estimated budget deficit for the current financial year of nearly £40m.

The Conservative-controlled council’s Cabinet approved the closure of the ten children’s centres during its recent meeting at County Hall, in Matlock, on April 29, with over 100 potential job cuts and the ‘disestablishment’ of its existing Early Help teams to achieve a £3.9m savings target.

Protesters, including union and Labour Party supporters, had descended on the council’s headquarters before the Cabinet meeting calling for the authority not to close the children’s centres and to rethink plans to close up to 11 elderly care homes as part of saving strategies but the Cabinet still agreed to the closure of the children’s centres.

However, Derbyshire Labour councillors – who say they have support from the Liberal Democrats – have ‘called-in’ the decision by the council’s Cabinet for it to be reconsidered amid claims the council had not fully considered the impact of closures on children and families and had not considered the possible, subsequent extra costs of dealing with children in crisis without the centres.

The council’s opposition Labour Group Deputy Leader, Cllr Ruth George, said: “These cuts were brought forward to save money due to the county council’s dire finances.

“However, although the Cabinet report admitted that reducing early support to families costs more in the long run as more people fall into crisis, that extra  expense wasn’t costed, so Cabinet could not make an informed judgement.

“The report also admits that the cuts may well be a false economy. Cuts to family support services by Derbyshire Conservatives five years ago have left us with almost ’50per cent’ more children in care in Derbyshire, impacting on hundreds of children’s lives and increasing the costs to the county council by around £20 million a year.”

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

But the Cabinet 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 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.

Council Cabinet Member for Children and Families, Cllr Julie Patten, has said the council needs to balance its budget while facing a growing demand for social care support and spiralling costs for private placements for children in its care.

The council has stated it aims to refocus the services to offer a response to statutory expectations combined with some practical family support with services for children from birth to five-years-old.

New changes to children’s services aim 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.

Cllr Patten added that the support offered to families will be a priority and there will be an additional £1m of support funding available while she has also argued it is better to deal with families in their own homes.

The council has claimed that like many authorities, it is facing unprecedented financial pressures beyond its control and it needs to save £3.9m from the Early Help and Children’s Centres’ budgets.

But the Labour Group claims that numerous health and education organisations have highlighted that the changes risk increasing the council’s costs with more families being left in crisis with children taken into care.

Opposition Labour Group Leader, Cllr Joan Dixon, has stated that in 2010 when Labour lost control of the council there were as many as 56 children’s centres in Derbyshire and she believes the latest decision means more children will fall into crisis.

Cllr George said: “Neither the children of Derbyshire, nor our council tax payers can afford for the Conservatives to make the same mistake again.

“That is why we are asking the Scrutiny Committee to assess the full cost implications of the extra services that will be needed if the ten children’s centres are closed and over half of the early support staff are cut so that Cabinet can take them into account and reconsider this false economy.”

According to the Labour Group, the formal ‘call-in’ requires the council to refer the decision back to a Scrutiny Committee for consideration on the grounds of the proposed argument that the Cabinet failed to take account of the impact on children and families alongside claims the closures will mean extra costs if more families fall into crisis due to the cuts.

The Labour Group added that if the ‘call-in’ is found to be in order by the counicl’s legal officer then a special ‘Improvement and Scrutiny Committee – People’ meeting will be called to consider the arguments and decide whether to refer the decision back to Cabinet for reconsideration with additional information.

A Derbyshire County Council spokesperson stated the number of children coming into its care has increased by 40per cent in the last five years and not 50per cent as Cllr George claims.

The council also argued the number of children in its care, as a rate per population in 2022/23, remained below the national average.

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

The council stated it regularly provides updates and support to the unions and to all its employees regardless of whether they are union members particularly because about 70per percent of its workforce are not UNISON members.

Cllr Patten has also said the council will do all it can to support employees.  

A council spokesperson said: “Decisions that have been taken by Cabinet can be ‘called in’ as part of the normal democratic process and that’s happened in this case.

“The matter will now be referred to the ‘Improvement and Scrutiny Committee – People’.

“If after considering the decision the committee is still concerned about it, it may then refer it back [to] Cabinet for reconsideration setting out in writing the nature of the concerns.

“If the committee has no objection to the decision, those requesting the ‘call-in’ will be informed and the decision will be implemented.

“At this present time we don’t yet have a date for that meeting.”

During the original Cabinet meeting, the Cabinet also agreed to launch a public consultation into its 16 elderly residential care homes and possible plans to close nine or 11 of these along with eight older people day centres in a bid to save £5.2 million and further help balance its budget with a new focus on services for people with dementia and their carers.

This consultation comes two years after the authority closed seven care homes in 2022 despite widespread opposition with a campaign throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

The council, like many authorities nationwide, has suffered from high inflation rates, the cost of living crisis, uncertainties with Government funding, rising costs and rising demands on services, and the impact of costly pay awards.

 

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