Union and parents launch campaign against closure of children’s centres

Children at the Lark Hall children's centre – one of five scheduled for closure
Children at the Lark Hall children’s centre – one of five scheduled for closure

The Lambeth branch of the trade union Unison and local parents this week launched a campaign against cuts to children’s centres in the borough as the council tackles a £1.4 million gap in its children’s centres budget.

There are currently 23 children’s centres in Lambeth and the council plans a reorganisation in which five will be closed. The campaigners say others face significant losses of staff and point out that the centres also provide services for parents including language skills and debt advice.

Streatham mother Becky Crocker said: “The last round of cuts to children’s centres have meant that, since giving birth to my child, I have barely been able to access services, leaving me struggling to cope and isolated.

“Recently, it has reached breaking point, and I have had to take time off work due to stress. These proposed closures would make it even worse for my family, and for families across Lambeth. They can’t be allowed to happen.”

A Unison press release said the cuts had been proposed without consultation with staff and that the council’s consultation process would have only one public meeting.

But the council said it is working with children’s centres in each part of the borough to arrange consultation meetings in centres at times when parents can attend.

It also said that it had been working with centre managers and headteachers since mid-November, providing detailed information on the proposals, to ensure that staff were told about the plans before they were published.

Jennifer Brathwaite, the council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for children and young people said: “We are proud to have an excellent network of 23 children’s centres in Lambeth and proud that we have kept these vital services for Lambeth families despite eight years of cuts from the Tory government.

“But recent government cuts and changes to grant funding mean we have a £1.4 million budget gap for children’s centres. So we’re consulting on proposals to reorganise our centres. Our proposals protect 18 children’s centres and will continue to provide excellent services in the borough for young children.

“Unfortunately, the funding challenge does mean withdrawing funding from five centres.

“This is a tough decision, but one we have made based on centres’ locations and accessibility to them for most parents, the number of Lambeth children who use each centre and ensuring that we continue to provide services that support the families who are in the greatest need.

“As was clear in the consultation documents, we are working with our children’s centres in each part of the borough to arrange consultation meetings in centres at times when parents can attend. And the council worked with centre managers and head teachers to ensure that staff were informed about the proposals before they became public and we are consulting them on them”.

Ruth Cashman of Lambeth Unison said: “Nationally, Labour is highlighting the need for good-quality early years provision which makes substantial difference in the development of children, especially those who come from poorer families.

“Locally they are proposing to slash these services, despite research on the increasing isolation of mothers on maternity leave and life becoming increasingly desperate for poor families. Many Lambeth families can’t afford to lose children’s centre services.”

None of the five proposed closures (Coin Street, North Lambeth; Heathbrook, Wandsworth Road; Weir Link, Clapham; Sunnyhill, Streatham; and Lark Hall, Clapham) is in Brixton.

The planned reorganisation will see Lambeth divided into six “cluster” areas – two of which will be in Brixton because of its size and density of population – with 11 “core centres”. These will include Jubilee Children’s Centre, Tulse Hill; Liz Atkinson Children’s Centre, Mostyn Road, near Myatt’s Fields; Loughborough Children’s Centre, Minet Road; and Stockwell Children’s Centre, Burgoyne Road. There will also be seven “link” centres.

The council’s entire budget for children’s services in the current financial year is more than £70 million.

The Sutton Trust, a charity promoting social mobility, has estimated that as many as 1,000 children’s centres in England may have closed since the government ended specific funding for the Sure Start scheme that was launched by the late Tessa Jowell, former MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, in 1998.

Details of the council’s plans [PDF]

The council consultation on the plans runs until 10 February and includes an online survey.

The council is also consulting until 14 January on how to approach all the challenges the borough faces because of large cuts in central government funding.

It must save £43 million over the next four years and says this is more than it now spends on parks, rubbish and recycling, libraries, and street cleaning combined.