Why we are making the difficult decision to propose closing two children's centres
Cllr Caroline Woodley, Cabinet Member for Early Years, said:
“The past 18 months have been a once-in-a-generation challenge: our country, borough -- and every household -- have been impacted like no other time in recent memory.
“It’s been incredibly tough for the Council too: the financial help we’ve provided, and are continuing to provide, to help navigate the crisis is unprecedented.
“We’ve rightly spent millions of pounds supporting residents and businesses through the pandemic, including millions supporting our schools; families with children on free school meals; and the clinically extremely vulnerable.
“We’ve done this while responding to increasing demand for our services in the most challenging of circumstances; whilst also feeling the severe impact of income loss; and now we are faced with rising inflation and commodity costs. We also stood with the whole early years sector at the height of the COVID-19 crisis making sure that local and Government schemes addressed issues around grants and furlough.
“This all comes on top of more than a decade of sustained core Government cuts, under which Hackney has suffered the biggest funding reduction, per household, of any London borough.
“Until now, we have been reducing spending and making savings in a way that minimises the impact on front-line services. But despite this, we will still need to make millions of pounds of savings this coming year, and we will be left with funding challenges that will impact us all, for many years to come.
“We know how important early education, early help and affordable childcare is and yet it remains seriously underfunded. Local authorities across the country have been continually calling for more support for this sector; we simply cannot keep promising to carry on as usual for less and less money - it is unsustainable. Alongside colleagues and the Mayor, I have campaigned, marched, written, Twitter-stormed, petitioned, lobbied, and given evidence to Parliament on behalf of the whole early years sector - all this so far has been ignored by Central Government.
“We’ve held off proposing cuts to our children’s centre provision for as long as we possibly can, but we have exhausted all other options, and now must make the difficult decision to consult on shutting two children’s centres in order to make the drastic service savings required and safeguard our wider network of provision. This isn’t about balancing the Council’s wider books by cutting affordable child care. It is about reducing unacceptable pressures on service providers and making our services more sustainable, reprovisioning our children's centres, and targeting resources to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
“Hackney Council has one of the highest numbers of children's centres of any local authority in London and we still will even after these proposed changes. We have spent the last 17 years developing quality provision in all these centres - all of which have been judged either good or outstanding by Ofsted.
“We’re so incredibly proud of these centres and our staff; and it is deeply frustrating that despite our calls to central government - to work with local authorities on establishing a funding model that fully recognises the costs of delivery - we now have little choice but to make these stark proposals. We would never consider closing a children’s centre unless there was no other option.
“In making these proposals, we’ve looked very carefully at various factors. This includes occupancy: there are approximately 30 vacancies across both sites. A 32% vacancy rate in Fernbank; and 23% vacancy rate in Hillside. This means there are approximately 11 out of 41 full time equivalent spaces unfilled each day, despite work with both centres to turn this around.
“Vacancies have a direct impact on each centre’s budget, adding pressure where there is little room to give. On top of this, there are ongoing negotiations with the owners of the Fernbank premises around the increase in the cost of a lease by an estimated £80,000 each year. At the same time, Fernbank requires costly maintenance works, such as boiler replacement and significant remedial works, which are estimated at £120,000. Alone these factors might not lead to closure, but combined with other challenges they make the situation harder.
“Other factors that we have taken into consideration when making these proposals are:
- There are five children centres within walking distance of each other, which would allow children to access ‘stay and play’ sessions at the remaining three centres, and across Hackney.
- The centres are situated in an area where increasing numbers of children are attending independent settings, up from 1,345 in 2020 to 1,446, with fewer children in the community attending mainstream provision.
“We estimate that 29 children in Hillside and 16 in Fernbank are likely to be impacted by the time any changes happen next year; the remaining children will have moved into schools.
“We know this is an incredibly disappointing and worrying time for these local parents and carers. We will do absolutely everything in our power to support them and help them access alternative provision where needed; and these children will be given priority where there are vacancies at other children's centres, including at the three within a short walking distance. We have already begun mapping this and won’t leave any family without support.
“We have also committed to reviewing arrangements for baby places as part of any reprovisioning of a children’s centre in the north of the borough.
“We know the proposed changes will have a significant impact on staff. Should the closures go ahead, staff will be supported and will have the opportunity for redeployment into vacant positions in other Council-run centres and they will have access to the Council’s full redeployment list. We are keen to continue to work with staff and unions around these proposals and minimise any negative impact.
“Lastly, I’d like to emphasise that we do not want Hackney’s children’s centres to disappear from our Early Years service one-by-one, as vacancies rise and budget pressures mount. The Early Years Strategy that has also gone out for consultation - alongside these proposals - offers a set of principles that we want to uphold as we seek to reconfigure our provision.
“Despite the challenges, the Mayor and I are committed to making important changes and improvements, and channeling our limited resources where they will have the biggest impact for those who need them most. These include: creating ‘early years hubs’, one in the north and one in the south of the borough, for children with complex needs; developing six strategic children’s centres into ‘children and family hubs’ that bring together family support for children of ages 0 to 19 years; and joining Early Years and health visiting teams to provide combined support and guidance for young children and their families.”