Council votes to close 19 Children's centres across Buckinghamshire

Warren Whyte Left and Alka Dass Centre
Warren Whyte Left and Alka Dass Centre

Controversial plans to close 19 children’s centres across the county were given the green light by the council yesterday after 18 months of debates.

Bucks County Council’s (BCC) cabinet gathered at county hall on March 4 where they approved plans to close 19 of the 35 children’s centres across the county.

The remaining 16 sites will be turned into “family centres”, which will provide support for families with young people aged 0 to 19.

Council bosses say the 19 centres set to be scrapped will still provide services for young families, such as additional nursery and pre-school places and baby and toddler groups, but they will not be run by BCC.

However, campaigners who have long fought to keep all of the children’s centres open have said “it is a sad day for children and families in Bucks”.

The plans form part of an overhaul of the council’s Early Help service – which will be renamed the Family Support Service, providing support for a wider range of people.

The new service will include three family support teams based in different areas of the county that will work together with other organisations, such as schools and health, to improve support.

Each family who accesses the service will also be provided with a key worker, there will be improved online guidance for families and family support workers will be introduced in schools as part of the plans.

BCC’s director for children’s services, Tolis Vouyioukas, said the new service “is much more than the physical buildings”, as it focuses on “providing the right support at the right time”.

He said: “The first thing to say is this model is based very much on what we want to do moving forward, which is to help families identify the issues that they face at the earliest opportunity, which we take extremely seriously.

“The existing Early Help offer that we have right now is not reaching the right families at the right time.

“It is important to emphasise the point that this is much more than the physical buildings. It is about providing the right professional support at the right time.”

Cabinet member for children’s services, Warren Whyte, added some children were not receiving help “until it was a little bit too late” under the old Early Help service.

He said: “Only five per cent of children accessing our physical children’s centres had an identified need for support and we weren’t able to reach some of the children until it was a little bit too late. By then the issues may have spiralled into something far more complex.

“A very topical issue would be speech and language. It is really critical that if schools or nurseries identify those kinds of issues they have a reliable way of being able to direct that to our Early Help service.

“Our new service and new model is about reaching the children and families that don’t get to see Early Help.”

The controversial debate on changes to the service has rumbled on for over a year – following the announcement the 35 children’s centres in the county would be replaced with nine hubs in 2017.

A public consultation was then abandoned in March 2018 after families and campaigners raised concerns over the quality of the investigation.

Since then the council has run another 10-week public consultation with the help of independent agency BMG research.

Speaking after the meeting, campaigner Alka Dass criticised cabinet members for “back patting” each other rather than “questioning” Cllr Whyte.

She said: “The project officers did a much better job this time round but unfortunately Cllr Whyte still was unable to answer questions and tell us how many staff there would be vs what we have now.

“I was lucky that at least my son and I received the help we did for three years of his life and especially at the beginning after my mother passed away.

“I hope that the future children , youth and families also receive the level of care and support I did. I am not so convinced when there will only be 16 family centres.”