Why we’re pausing any closure of children’s centres for now
Cllr Caroline Woodley, Cabinet Member for Families, Early Years, Parks and Play, explains why the Council has paused its children's centre closure proposals:
Asking our residents whether we should close two children’s centres in the face of relentless Government cuts has been the most difficult proposal I’ve had to make since taking up the role of a Cabinet Member in Hackney.
When I was a working single mum to a two-year-old, I found it incredibly difficult to secure affordable childcare, and went into debt just trying to hold on to the right place for my son. I know first-hand the struggles that many parents and carers face trying to juggle their finances, jobs and lives to make this work, and the emotion and stress any threat to that delicate balance can cause.
That strength of feeling has been clear over the last few months as we listened to parents, campaigners, community groups and others about our plans to close Fernbank and Hillside Children’s Centres, and it’s why we’ve decided to pause these proposals for now. This means the centres will not close in September 2022.
We’ll use that extra time to look more broadly at our provision across the borough, and that will include further conversations with our communities about all of our services for young children and their families.
To be absolutely clear – we are not trying to save money at the expense of our children. Closing children’s centres is not something we want to do, and certainly isn’t what I got into politics in my local community to do. Much of the debate has been about why the Council doesn’t value this provision or is seemingly unwilling to invest in it. I think it is really important to be clear that this is so far from the truth. The Mayor and I are part of an administration that has maintained children’s centre spending at the highest rate in London per child of any council in the capital.
This has meant until now, we’ve managed to maintain one of the highest number of centres in London – all rated good or outstanding by Ofsted – and our staff have continued to deliver excellent support and care every day. But with Council finances at breaking point, our proposals were about directing diminishing resources to the most vulnerable children – using data about vacancies and geography. We’ll look again at these in the round and we fully recognise the contribution of the 11 centres that provide affordable childcare to the supply of this much needed provision in the borough.
I believe that nationally we need to step up the debate about the cost of childcare and how we fund accessible provision. It is a campaign I have long been a part of and continue to champion. However, our children’s centres weren’t just set up to meet this need nor have they ever been able to accommodate all of the demand for affordable childcare in the borough.
After 11 years of austerity and the added financial strain of the pandemic, we face some very tough decisions about our frontline services that families rely on – and those aren’t going to go away. Government spending on children’s centres has fallen by two-thirds over the last decade, and ministers continue to neglect the early development of children, leaving councils to pick up the bill and manage the effects of austerity.
Pausing these closures won’t make the millions of pounds in savings we have to make disappear. It won’t make the challenge of rising rents and investment in building maintenance disappear. And it won’t make the need to reconfigure our early years services to ensure they’re sustainable and more focused on the most vulnerable disappear.
Together with councils across the country, the Mayor and I will continue to make the case for the Government to properly invest in our country’s creaking early years provision so that families don’t face the stress of struggling to find an affordable childcare place. Until then, a difficult road lies ahead.
Cllr Caroline Woodley, Cabinet Member for Families, Early Years, Parks and Play