Irwin Mitchell Solicitors are taking BCC to court, as they believe the plan to close 19 of Buckinghamshire's Children Centres could be in breach of the Childcare Act 2006 and Equality Act 2010.
Buckinghamshire County Council decided in March to close 19 of the 35 centres it operates across the county, and plans to turn the remaining centres into ‘Family Centres’ offering a different model of provision.
Campaigners have been deeply angered by the move, which offers vital support to those most at need.
Following the decision a, 32-year-old woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous to protect her children’s privacy, and who gave birth to her youngest son in January, instructed Irwin Mitchell’s specialist Public Law and Human Rights team to investigate. She attends Millbrook Children’s Centre in High Wycombe, almost every day for stay and play sessions with her son.
The mum also uses the centre for general emotional support and practical advice on issues including housing and benefits. Her legal team believe that the plan could amount to a breach of the Childcare Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2010.
Lawyers have launched a judicial review challenging the legality of the plans in the High Court A hearing is to take place on 13 June, at which the court will be asked to make an order preventing the council from taking any further steps to implement the closures.
James Betts, the legal expert at Irwin Mitchell, representing the family, said: “Children’s centres provide vital support to families in a range of situations and our client and her son have benefitted greatly from the access to the services at Millbrook."
"However, the planned closure of the site and the wider proposals to completely reshape services across the county will make it much harder for families with young children in the area to get the support they need."
“They and many other families have found the current situation hugely distressing and we believe the council should have done more when considering this issue. We are now determined to ensure that our client gets their voice heard on this emotive matter.”
The changes are due to come into effect in September this year. They would mean that the remaining centres would no longer solely support those with children up to the age of five and instead focus on a wider age range up to 19.
Furthermore, the open access support that the family relies on would only be made available at three sites in the region. Irwin Mitchell has challenged the decision on several grounds, including that the consultation process was ultimately unfair with some public statements even suggesting the matter was pre-determined.
The legal experts also believe it amounts to a breach of the duty to ensure there are sufficient child care services across Buckinghamshire. They have also argued that there has been a failure to consider statutory guidance from the Department for Education on children’s centres which sets out the presumption that centres should not be closed.
Discussing the personal implications of the plans, the mum said: “The staff at Millbrook have had a huge impact on my life, helping me when times have been tough with a range of support. To lose that would be completely devastating.”
“They are like family, to the point where staff even attended hospital appointments and scans. Since my son was born we have also headed along to play sessions and courses on bonding with your baby. Put simply, I would be lost without them.
“It is hard to believe that this decision could have been taken and I just want to ensure the council has properly considered all aspects. These closures will have a huge impact on the local community, affecting me and many others too.”
Parents and local residents in the area set up a campaign group, Save Buckinghamshire’s Children’s Centres, two years ago to fight the council’s plans.
Lead campaigner, Alka Dass said: ‘‘Our aim is to keep all 35 children’s centres open so that families have access to vital support and services that they need. These centres are a lifeline for many families and their children and closing all of these is not the solution.
"We need money invested into them so they can help more and more families – our voices need to be heard.” “We have been campaigning in Bucks for the last two years, we want an end put to this and for the council to put a halt to this decision. There are many parents like this mother who do not want their centre to disappear and who rely on them heavily.”
In response, Buckinghamshire County Council said the following.
Warren Whyte, Cabinet Member for Children Services said: “We are aware of legal proceedings relating to our plans to make changes to Children’s Centre services in Buckinghamshire. These proceedings focus on those early help services offered at the centres.
“We must ensure our early help offer supports the right families at the right time so that their needs do not escalate and they are given the support they require when they need it.
“It is vital that our new Family Support Service launches on 2 September, as planned. Any delay to this will impede our ability to help the very people who need it most, and will have a serious financial impact on the service.
“The changes to services form part of a Partnership Early Help Strategy created after an extensive 10-week public consultation. Two thirds of respondents said we should proceed with this new strategy, which puts the needs of local children and families at its heart.
“Our strategy is not about buildings – it is about people. While 16 existing children’s centres will expand their offer, as new Family Centres, plans are being finalised to enable other existing children’s centre sites to be used by families in their community.
“We are unable to comment further on the legal proceedings at this time.”
For more information visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/savebuckinghamshireschildrenscentres/