There were tears and admonitions at the Whitley Surestart children’s centre over proposals to close many of the town’s children’s centres.
Reading Borough Council (RBC) proposes to replace 13 children’s centres with four ‘hubs’ which, together with satellite buildings, will offer services targeted at vulnerable families instead of the current universal services. Universal health and maternity services would still be available from some of these centres.
RBC are making these proposals to cut £400 thousand from children’s services because central government has reduced funding to local authorities across the country. The council has arranged a number of meetings around the town as part of its public consultation.
About ten mums and their children attended the Whitley meeting on 16 February, where questions were fielded by councillor Jan Gavin, Gina Carpenter (RBC children’s action team) and Ray Coates (advisory board chair).
“In the first year, every single mum needs support, so when you cut off the ‘bumps and babies’ group you’re going to have mums isolated and depressed; they will not have access to other mums to talk with,” said one mother. “You are really threatening public health with this.”
Attending mothers agreed that the existing universal groups offered a form of mutual self-help that means they don’t have to resort to GPs or social services, but can share problems and advice with each other, including practical help such as babysitting. They also expressed dismay that the skills of so many knowledgeable and qualified staff would be lost to the town and the people who need it.
“I don’t know what I would have done without these groups,” added another mum, who burst into tears.
“I understand that you need to make cuts, but do you really want to make cuts from mums and babies?” said one mother. “These are the future!”
Councillor Gavin responded that the council’s budget had already been cut by £60 million and would be cut by a further £40 million in the next few years, and that children’s services had to make a contribution to these cuts.
She added that it wasn’t viable to build a sustainable service on the “hope and wish” of corporate sponsorship or fees paid by service users, and the council wasn’t allowed to apply for grants either. Some children’s services could be run by volunteers or charities using the council’s existing facilities.
“The message that I’ve got loud and clear is that parents value universal groups and opportunities for networking to feel less isolated,” said councillor Gavin. “The reality is that we have to save £400 thousand. How we save that, and how we continue to offer a service which people want with the amount of money we’ve got left is up for discussion.”
The consultation ends in March 2017 and the final decision about children’s centres will be made in June. Changes may be implemented from about October 2017. Full details of the proposal are available from the RBC website, which also lists the dates and venues of public consultation meetings.
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