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Have your say on controversial children's centre changes from September

PUBLISHED: 18:21 16 July 2019 | UPDATED: 18:33 16 July 2019

Hillside Children's Centre, Ipswich, is one earmarked for part time use. Picture: RACHEL EDGE

Hillside Children's Centre, Ipswich, is one earmarked for part time use. Picture: RACHEL EDGE

Rachel Edge

Plans to shake-up children's centre provision in Suffolk will go to the public from September, after it was agreed for consultation this afternoon.

Gordon Jones: 
Suffolk County Council cabinet member for childrens services, education and skills said outreach services meant rural communities would be better served. Picture: SCC/SIMON LEEGordon Jones: Suffolk County Council cabinet member for childrens services, education and skills said outreach services meant rural communities would be better served. Picture: SCC/SIMON LEE

New proposals published last week revealed a plan to axe two of the county's 38 children's centres entirely, convert nine into part time centres and change 11 to nurseries of special educational needs schools. Sixteen would continue as normal.

The centres will be renamed 'family hubs' and cater for ages 0-19, instead of the 0-5 provision currently offered.

The plans, which also featured an extended outreach service, could save up to £1million.

On Tuesday, Suffolk County Council's cabinet agreed to put the proposals, which were recommended by a task group earlier this year, out to the public for consultation this September.

Liberal Democrat councillor Penny Otton questioned how adequate provision could be guaranteed. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNLiberal Democrat councillor Penny Otton questioned how adequate provision could be guaranteed. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Conservative councillor Gordon Jones, cabinet member for education, skills and children's services, said: "There is no doubt that children's centre service in Suffolk delivers a service that people value greatly , but people deliver services not buildings.

"I want to make sure our dedicated staff who provide these services are able to spend more of their time working with families rather than buildings they work in."

The proposals do not feature any cuts to frontline staff, although Mr Jones admitted it was possible that receptionists and similar roles could be lost as fewer buildings would be managed.

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It is hoped staff could be kept on and retrained or redeployed however.

Children's centres offer valuable advice and services for parents and families such as breastfeeding advice, postnatal services and group sessions such as baby massage and play.

Penny Otton, leader of the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group, said: "The needs of parents and carers are now so wide and so diverse mentally and physically that I am very concerned how we will be able to guarantee an adequate service and provision for children of such a wide age gap."

Ms Otton also raised fears that rural communities would be hit hardest. Mr Jones said: "Freeing up staff actually allows them to go out more into the communities and address some of those needs."

A firm date for the start of the public consultation has not yet been given, but is likely to be sometime in September, with a duration of between eight and 10 weeks.

Labout education spokesman Jack Abbott said: "You would've thought that, by now, the Conservatives would know that empty soundbites are not substitutes for detailed plans and properly thought out policies.

"Every time they failed to answer a question - instead repeatedly asserting that 'people not buildings deliver services' - it exposed a fundamental ignorance about what children's centres do and why they are important to families.

"This leaves me with only one conclusion - these cuts have nothing to do with delivering better family services and everything to do with the Tories trying to take shortcuts to fulfil their statutory responsibilities on the cheap.

"Not a penny more will go into replacement outreach services, and the county will lose over half of its full-time children's centres. It is an absolute disaster."

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