Tuesday, 22 June 2021

New children’s centre is unaffordable, says village

PLANS for a new children’s centre in Benson have been dealt a severe blow by parish councillors over funding.

The proposal has been put forward by Mark Gray, the village’s representative on Oxfordshire County Council.

But parish councillors and residents are unhappy at his request for the parish to take on the full cost of the centre after two years and have questioned whether there is sufficient demand for it.

The centre would cost about £20,500 a year to run.

Cllr Gray has secured a grant of £11,000 per year from the county council for two years.

He asked the parish council to contribute £9,000 in years one and two and then take on the full cost in future years as the village grows.

The rest of the income needed would come from fund-raising, grants and donations.

Families using the centre would be encouraged to make a suggested donation of £2 per day each to help with running costs.

The centre would serve parents of children aged up to five.

It would be based at  the youth hall in Oxford Road, the parish hall in Sunnyside and the canon’s room in St Helen’s Church.

Eventually it could have its own bespoke building paid with contributions made by developers under the Community Infrastructure Levy scheme.

Cllr Gray said the purpose of a children’s centre was to improve outcomes for young children and their families, with a particular focus on those in greatest need. “I appreciate £22,000 is a large amount of money,” he said.

“I don’t think that this will challenge any other business, which is one of the things that has been put to me. Largely it’s about supporting the parents.”

But former parish councillor Ian Leppard said: “I don’t think the parish council can even afford to think about this, certainly not think about running it and in two years’ time think about forking out £22,000 a year.”

Resident Martyn Spence called the proposal “laudable” but added: “Is it fair that the parish council, the ratepayers, should fund the whole of the programme beyond two years?”

Councillor Michael Winton told Cllr Gray: “You’re asking us to do a job the county council should be doing. I’m dead against it.”

Councillor Tom Stevenson added: “I can quite easily support the proposal but £20,000 is completely out of order.

“I think we need some market research because I don’t think there’s the demand.”

Cllr Gray replied that there was support from parents in Benson for a centre. “It’s not childcare — the parents go with them,” he said. “It’s called a children’s centre but really it’s about the parents.

“Children’s centres offer support to parents to help them raise their children. They work to make sure all children are properly prepared for school, regardless of background or family circumstances.

“Benson as a community is set to grow in size over the next few years and it is likely that there will be many new children.

“Also, this project will make up for the historic lack of early years provision in the village.”

Cllr Gray said the children’s centre in Cholsey had been established by the community and up to 200 parents and children visited each week.

Cholsey Parish Council paid £19,000 a year for the service and £4,000 was raised by the

Councillor Claire Robinson said the centre was a “great” idea in principle but that the demand needed to be assessed.

The centre would be run by a management committee, not the parish council, with a manager assuming day-to-day responsibility. It would have another three or four members of staff  and two or three assistants. 

It could offer stay-and-play sessions, lunch groups offering nutrition and cooking advice, childminder support sessions, health visitor and midwife sessions and information for parents/carers about the range of family support services and activities available in the area.

There could also be advice on parenting, access to specialists, targeted services for those families which need them, activities which increase parents’ or carers’ understanding of their child’s development, specific strategies and activities to increase the involvement of fathers and money and/or benefits advice.

Chairwoman Patricia Baylis said the parish council could not be involved in employing the staff and asked Cllr Gray for a more detailed feasibility study.

Meanwhile, a former chairman of the parish council has rejoined.

Bill Pattison, who stepped down in August 2013, is one of two new councillors appointed following the death of former chairwoman Pat Peers in December and the resignation of vice-chairman Jon Fowler for personal reasons.

Cllr Pattison was on the council for 14 years until 2013 when he quit to concentrate on other projects and spend more time with his family and was chairman from 2005 to 2012. 

He and his wife Hazel sell knitted tortoises to raise money for Rainbow the Tortoise, a charity which helps the Chiltern Centre for disabled children in Henley, Wallingford Toy Library and RAW, formerly the Pathway Workshop, which produces hand-made garden and wildlife products made by people with disabilities.

The other councillor is Claire Robinson.

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