A LAST-DITCH bid to force a rethink of £6million cuts to Sure Start children’s centres in Hampshire failed as the ruling Conservatives rallied to back the county council’s controversial plans.
Liberal Democrat opposition councillors called in the plans to merge a third of 81 centres and put them all out to tender in clusters for third parties to run.
The move followed a petition signed by more than 20,000 people protesting against the cost-cutting plans.
The centres provide services for young families such as health checks, play groups and family support workers.
Speaking at a scrutiny committee last Tuesday, New Forest Liberal Democrat councillor Brian Dash slammed the council for “dismantling a highly valued service.”
He said: “The council has a huge budget and we can, if we want to, find the money.
“We want the best for Hampshire’s children, not least because the early years are the most important of a child’s life.”
But Hampshire’s director of children’s services John Coughlan defended the radical overhaul, saying: “I am convinced this model works.”
He described the slimmed-down management structure as “sustainable.”
The council, which is having to tackle a £55million funding gap, aims to save £3m in head office costs and £3m from children’s centre budgets.
Mr Coughlan said: “The local authority remains responsible for the quality of provision of children’s centres. We will be accountable for what they do.”
Cllr Jackie Porter, opposition spokesman for children’s services, made a plea for schools and local charities to be able to continue to run children’s centres.
She said: “Some centres are doing an excellent job with good staff. We don’t want to lose that continuity.”
County chiefs said sub-contracting would be possible and schools would be encouraged to join together to bid to manage clusters of children’s centres.
The scrutiny committee did not have the power to overturn the plans but could have recommended changes.
Tory councillor David Drew said it was important to remember the council was still planning to spend £11m on children’s centres and there were no plans to close any of them.
Conservative councillors, who outnumber Liberal Democrats on the committee, supported the plans approved by Cllr Roy Perry, executive member for children’s services, in May. The proposal for a review was defeated by nine votes to seven.
After the meeting, Save Our Children’s Centre Hampshire campaigners said they were dismayed a last chance to make changes had been missed.
Co-founder and mum-of-two Catherine Ovenden said: “Once again, councillors seem to have voted along party lines. The plans will now go ahead and all we can do is keep a very close eye on exactly what happens on the ground.
“However, I really hope they realise the impact that their decision today could have on young lives across Hampshire. I fear that they are making a huge mistake.”
Taken from Basingstoke Gazette Tues 21st June 2011