Thursday, 28 October 2021

Campaigners attack fresh closure threat to centres

PLANS to axe children’s centres in the Henley area have been branded "short-sighted".

PLANS to axe children’s centres in the Henley area have been branded "short-sighted".

The three centres are under threat from cost-cutting measures drawn up by Oxfordshire County Council.

The authority currently runs 44 centres and seven early intervention hubs but wants to replace these with eight children’s and family centres in order to save £8million.

It means the Rainbow children’s centres at the d:two centre in Upper Market Place, Henley, and Chiltern Edge School in Sonning Common as well as the Watlington centre are likely to close.

Emma Taylor, who founded the Save Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centres Campaign in 2013 after a previous threat of closure, said: "It’s a totally retrograde step and this is what we argued before.

"We thought they had understood what we’d said to them. Instead they were shutting us up for a couple of years.

"This is a cop-out and they’re washing their hands of it. They could go back to the Government, dig their heels in and say ’we’re not going to do this’.

"If they had exhausted every avenue and it was the Government saying ’absolutely not’ that would be a different matter.

"I don’t believe our country doesn’t have the money because we’re a hugely rich nation and people are going to suffer."

The council insists it will still have a presence in communities and focus on the most vulnerable children and families.

Under its "preferred" model the closest centre to Henley would be in Didcot. The others would be in Witney, Bicester, Abingdon, Banbury and Oxford (three).

But Mrs Taylor said: "How are people with hardly any money going to travel to Didcot or Oxford?

"The reality is you will create a real divide in the community."

Mrs Taylor, 40, of Western Avenue, Henley, said family centres used to be seen as a "naughty step" for parents and people didn’t want to use them due to the "stigma".

"They created children’s centres so people like that were getting help," she said. "It removed that stigma and more people were prepared to access the services. They didn’t feel it was stigmatising them as bad parents.

"All the research shows we need to invest in children and catch them young. This is simply a cost-cutting exercise. It’s so short-sighted."

Roger Cole, pastor at Henley Baptist Church which is also based at the d:two centre, said it would be a "huge disappointment" if the children’s centre there closed.

"It would mean there would be little or no support for parents and their children provided here in Henley," he said.

"Henley is right on the edge of Oxfordshire and it always seems to be hit hard even though there are lots of vulnerable families.

"If a family did have to go to Didcot, it would mean getting in a car and that’s a long journey and very difficult for families."

David Nimmo Smith, Henley’s representative on the county council, said that Henley might end up with a children’s centre nearby but the council hoped to work with the d:two centre and the Nomad youth and community project based there.

"We have a statutory duty to protect vulnerable children," he said. "I do recognise the concerns being expressed."

Steve Harrod, Watlington’s representative on the county council, defended the move at a parish council meeting last week, emphasizing the increase in outreach work.

But parish councillor Roger Beattie said: "If you take that away there’s not a brass penny going to young people in the county in any way, shape or form.

"Chalgrove and Watlington children’s centres are purpose-built buildings which have cost money and you’re just waving them away." Councillor Harrod replied: "It doesn’t mean every children’s centre is going to be shut down. These buildings and services could be taken over by local community groups.

"It’s saying ’if you really want to have that service you’re going to have to find your own way of doing it’ and we’ll help you in any way we can.

"We’re going to have to reduce the services some people have been enjoying but not to the detriment of their lives."

The council says its proposals are in response to large cuts in council funding and "stark financial challenges".

Children’s centres offer activities for under-fives and information and support for parents. Early intervention hubs, introduced in 2011, are designed to bring together services supporting children and families.

In the second option there would also be eight centres but the council would continue to provide or commission limited universal services.

Under a third option there would be six centres. This would release £1million a year for grant funding to the voluntary and community sector to deliver services for families across Oxfordshire.

On Tuesday the council’s cabinet agreed to carry out a public consultation which is likely to run from early October to the end of the year.

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