"Save our children's centres." This was the cry issued by parents, childminders and concerned residents at a protest in Aylesbury.
More than 30 adults and 16 children gathered outside the Buckinghamshire County Council offices on November 13, to raise placards and voice their concerns.
They are opposing potential changes that would see 35 children's centres close in the new year, as part of the county council’s ‘Early Help’ consultation.
Protest organiser Alka Dass is asking that Bucks try to do things differently. She said: “The idea is to get as many people together to protest against the potential closures. The decision has been delayed and there’s been an overwhelming response from people who are asking a lot of questions.”
“This is a national problem, and there are lots town that face switching from centres to hubs. We feel Bucks should be unique, be different and reinvest into existing services. I understand cuts need to be made, but do we really need to be taking money out of children’s services?”
Speaking on the idea of making use of existing social groups for parents, Alka added: “If you’re suffering from postnatal depression or struggling with financial worries you’re not necessarily going to want to attend a church group with hundreds people. I've benefitted from the centres myself; they’re not just playgrounds and buildings.”
The extended consultation, which ended on October 16 and received over 2000 responses, raised the idea of shuttering the existing centres and replacing them with nine ‘hubs’ when the service is restructured.
No formal decision on the future of the centres have been made and a report on the outcome of the consultation is expected on January 9.
The council’s cabinet member for children’s services Warren Whyte addressed protesters and answered questions from the crowd. He said: “I don’t think we've helped ourselves in the original consultation documentation. It did not articulate the way residents use the service.”
“Children’s centres are a location in the community where things can happen. Within children's centres are lots of Early Help facilities; the majority of Early Help facilities will continue as they currently are.
Alka asked whether these will continue within the existing children's centres. “Not necessarily,” Warren answered, “in some locations we might better use a county of community asset, library or a parish hall or another building”
“There are several children's centres up and down the county that are only used two or three times a week. They're not all in the right location, they might be at the wrong end of the town, they might not be in the right village.”
Speaking after the protest, he added: “We appreciate that local residents are concerned about what will happen to children’s centres and some of the support that they offer at the moment. It is important to be clear that services such as grief counselling, health visitor clinics and parenting classes will continue to be provided by our health partners and as part of a new service.
“Developing a new early help service is about targeting services for children and families in a better way to those who need help the most and going out to where families are. It is about joining up services for families so they only have to tell their story once and having a more flexible service to support local needs.
“By bringing services for families together we will be able to put more people on the ground to go out and meet with the children and families who need us.”
Cllr Robin Stuchbury commented: “I’m pleased to see so many mums here today, it was a big effort for them to come down. The idea that taxpayers support cuts to children’s services has been disproved as the mums here are all taxpayers. Maybe a certain amount of taxpayers want to see cuts, but not all of them.
“I’m not convinced from what I’ve heard today. The simple fact is every pound spent on an under five saves £5 later in life, so if there’s an epidemic of further cases, they won't have the resources to deal with it.”
The former mayor of High Wycombe Cllr Mohammed Hanif said: “Decisions are made in the haste of the moment without thinking of the impact: some of these centres are really well equipped and money has been spent on them so all of a sudden they’re being strangled.
“We want Bucks County Council to review their decision-making process and to show some sanity.”
Protester and mum Elvan Clarke added: “Bucks is a very big county, and I don't see how nine facilities can replace 35.”
To follow the protest group online, head to www.facebook.com/SaveBuckinghamshiresChildrensCentres