Target Seats and Sure Start

The day before the general election David Cameron was asked for a guarantee that children centres would continue to receive funding, he replied: “Yes, we back Sure Start. It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this.”

Yet shortly after coming to power in 2010 the government combined 18 revenue funding streams from the Department of Education worth £2.9bn; including the ring fenced Sure Start grant, into one non-ringed Early Intervention Grant worth only £2.235bn in 2011/12 and £2.370bn in 2012/13.

Ministers later put £534m in 2013/14 and £760m in 2014/15 into the ring-fenced Dedicated Schools Grant to fund the expansion of the disadvantaged two-year-olds offer. However, the government took this money from the EIG used by councils to pay for Sure Start centres, parent support, short breaks for disabled children, help for troubled families and more.  On top of that, the government top-sliced an additional £150m in 2013/14 and 2014/2015 to establish the Adoption Reform Grant.

The Local Government Association (LGA) warned that this constituted a budget pressure, whilst a senior councillor told the Guardian that the potential cuts to its Sure Start and family recovery services as a result would be “brutal”.

Councils up and down the country have indeed felt the budget pressure leading to 800 less Sure Start children’s centres, including in the 106 target seats Labour has identified for the May 2015 election.

Where centres have closed or where services have been reduced there has been fierce opposition from local communities, and councillors both Labour and Conservative have dropped responsibility for the loss of services firmly with the government and their cuts. Local communities, Labour councillors and candidates in Conservative areas have also been very vocal about large numbers of closures and loss of services.

A 45.9% reduction in the EIG from central government to councils across the East Midlands has led to closures of centres across Lincolnshire. Twenty three of the Sure Start centres run by the council have closed since 2010, taking the authority’s total number of centres down from 48 to 25.

Lucy Rigby, Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Lincoln – a Labour target seat – has blasted the Conservative-led government for ‘failing’ children in the county.  Lucy Rigby said:

The Tories promised to protect Sure Start but have delivered only failure and it’s children and families in Lincolnshire who are paying the price… Remaining Sure Starts, relied on by parents, are under pressure and facing an uncertain future.”

In January this year Staffordshire County Council also revealed that it is reducing their number of centres from 57 to 11 in a bid to save £3 million. Labour has four target seats in this county; including Burton, Cannock Chase, Stafford and Tamworth.

In plans to axe 43 centres:

  • Schools will take over 27 children centre buildings and will be expected to offer some early years services
  • Eight sites will be handed over to libraries. They could still offer some pre-school activities, but the rooms would be for wider community and library use
  • 11 centres will be closed
  • And the remaining 11 centres will be turned into family hubs supporting underprivileged families

Although the new system is much cheaper the Conservative led authority here insists the cuts are about improving performance. However, the local community have been very vocal about the loss of so many centres. Parents forced the local authority to keep one of the county’s biggest children’s centres in Knutton earmarked for closure, and launched a petition to raise awareness of the council’s intentions to close Boney Hay children’s centre which receive more than 500 signatures in under a week.

Similarly, proposals from Essex County Council (ECC) will see 11 centres close and 33 centres become ‘delivery sites’ offering reduced services and opening hours in an attempt to make savings of £2.5m. ECC’s cabinet member with responsibility for families and children, Dick Madden, said:

“…the financial challenges that we face are unprecedented. Reduced funding from central Government, together with the impact of inflation and increasing demands for services means Essex County Council needs to save around £215m by 2016-17.”

Leader of the Labour Group at ECC, Councillor Julie Young, however strongly opposes the cuts in services along with Suzy Stride, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Harlow, a Labour target seat where two children’s centres are facing the axe. Stride told the papers: “Labour in Government would be putting families first investing in children and parents and supporting children centres. Harlow [is] being unfairly hit hardest by the Tory county council cuts. The Tories are out of touch, and Harlow is not their priority.”

In Kent there are now 85 Children’s Centres, down from 97. The council closed 12 centres on 1 April 2014 and reduced the opening hours of another 20. Ms Whittle, who is in charge of Specialist Children’s Services, said:

“We have a dwindling resource and we have got to use that on protecting services.

Significantly though, Conservative councillors originally planned to close 23 centres in order to save £1.5m, but following responses from over 6,000 people changed their proposals. Labour Party campaigners backing parents also contacted Sharon Hodgson who raised their case with Ministers during an education debate. In Kent, Chatham and Aylesford and Dover are target seats for Labour.

Clair Hawkins, Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Dover and Deal, told journalists: “Conservative councillors say they will not close any centres in areas of high deprivation but Buttercup and Daisy Sure Start Children’s Centres are in two of the most disadvantaged areas of Dover.”

Across the country Labour-controlled areas where deprivation levels are high have faced disproportionate cuts to their budgets but have tried to save front-line services and keep closures to a minimum. Candidates in Labour target seats have the opportunity to gain support in areas of the country where children’s centres are being closed as a result of budget cuts. Interestingly, Tory led councils have presided over an excessive amount of closures and are also laying the blame with government cuts.

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