Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Children’s centres to stay after campaign

TWO mothers from Henley are claiming victory after the threat of closure to the town’s children’s centre was lifted.

TWO mothers from Henley are claiming victory after the threat of closure to the town’s children’s centre was lifted.

Oxfordshire County Council has said it will keep all 44 of its children’s centres open after previously saying some were “likely” to be shut to save money.

Emma Taylor, 38, of Western Avenue, Henley, who founded the Save Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centres Campaign, said: “It was entirely down to the campaign.”

It was feared that the two Rainbow Children’s Centres, based at the d:two centre in Henley and Chiltern Edge School in Sonning Common, and the Chalgrove and Watlington Children’s Centre would be closed.

Mrs Taylor and fellow mother Banny Hay, of St Mark’s Road, Henley, organised demonstrations in Market Place and outside County Hall in Oxford.

They also collected more than 1,000 signatures in Henley for a county-wide petition that was supported by almost 16,000 people.

Now the council has said it does not envisage any of the centres closing but £3 million must be cut from its children’s services budget. It anticipates finding the money through efficiencies.

Mrs Taylor said: “Everyone who has had something to do with the campaign can be really proud of themselves for what they’ve achieved. I honestly think the majority of centres would have closed if we hadn’t been so vocal.

“I think the council had no idea about the strength of feeling that exists for these centres. Disappointingly, they didn’t have a proper idea of what they are for. By lobbying and campaigning, we’ve opened the councillors’ eyes to what they are.”

She said that handing over the petition to county council leader Ian Hudspeth brought home to him the strength of opposition to the cuts.

“It showed not only did we feel very strongly about it but we had no intention of giving up,” said Mrs Taylor.

The former journalist, who takes her four-year-old daughter Lilia to the Henley centre and is a volunteer there, said that even she was taken aback by the level of support for the campaign.

“I was surprised in a good way by the number of signatures we got, particularly in a small town like Henley where there are about 11,000 on the electoral role. People have been really proactive.

“We can often be forgotten down here at the bottom of the county. There’s a perception that we’re all wealthy and don’t need help with anything but the fact that people were prepared to come out and demonstrate in the town centre — plus all the support we had from businesses — shows how important the centres are.”

Mrs Hay, 43, who takes her 22-month-old son Caspar to the Henley centre three times a week, said “people power” had been shown to work.

She said: “It’s vindication of all the effort by the hard-working mums, dads, nannies and carers.”

Mrs Hay remains wary about how the remaining savings will be made.

“They’ve been speaking about an increased role for volunteers,” she said. “While they are fantastic and certainly have their roles, a lot of education experts say volunteers shouldn’t be used to plug the gap where we have trained, experienced and qualified staff.

“The goal is always the same, to provide young children with the best start in life and that is through early years education.

“While we’re delighted none of the centres is closing, we’re still going to look at what will happen in the long run.”

The council says it must save £60 million following a cut in the grant money it receives from the Government. This is on top of the £127 million in savings made since 2010 and another £74 million that must be cut over the next few years.

In a draft budget, cuts have been allocated across services, including £7.1 million in adult social care and £11.2 million in environmental services.

The council says the £3 million will be saved in 2017/18, including £1.3 million in children’s centres and early years services. It will also conduct a review of the children’s services.

Councillor Hudspeth said the council had “heard the passion” for the centres.

He said: “In essence, children’s centres and early intervention hubs have a bright future in Oxfordshire. We all want them to remain open and at the same time we all know that savings are needed.

“So if everybody can pull in the same direction over the next few years we can get to 2017 with a coherent plan that protects the frontline as well as making a contribution to the large savings target Oxfordshire County Council has to meet.

“I am confident that we can maintain our focus on early intervention to help children and families. There are such obvious and strong links with children’s social care and it makes absolute sense to come up with a long-term plan to better link these services.”

Councillor Melinda Tilley, who chairs a working group which carried out a review of the children’s centres, said: “We have looked long and hard at all areas and have identified where savings could conceivably be made, despite the fact that some of these services have already undergone significant funding reductions in recent years.

“Our absolute priority is to keep children safe, to ensure we can continue to fulfil our responsibilities and to provide support for the vulnerable young people who need it most.”

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