County's children's service cuts are the most severe says union

By Piers Meyler - Local Democracy Reporter

20th Jun 2024 | Local News

Essex County Council has closed more children's centres than any other local authority in England since 2010, according to figures from the country's largest union.

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from UNISON reveal that over a third of council-run children's centres in England have closed since 2010 when the government implemented austerity measures and slashed councils' financial support.

However, Essex has seen cuts of almost 90 per cent – of the 86 centres operating in 2010/11 just 12 remain open today.

The closures have devastated communities and left vulnerable families without access to vital education and health support, says the union.

However, Essex County Council has defended its record arguing that although the number of physical buildings has reduced its service has been broadened.

UNISON says children's centres play a crucial role in early-years education, and provide working families with childcare, health support and parenting advice.

It adds a staff survey shows a surge in health and mental health issues among children and parents, child learning and speech difficulties, as well as increased numbers of referrals to social services, and a lack of preparedness for school among children – including basic toilet training.

UNISON Eastern head of local government Alex Porter said: "Every region of England has closed vast numbers of council-run children's centres but Essex has the ignominy of closing more than anyone else.

"Children's centres are the lifeblood of local communities. They support working and vulnerable parents, and they provide essential education and developmental support to the nation's children from birth to school age and beyond.

"This research has exposed the harsh reality of centres closing. From leaving vulnerable families in deprived areas and isolated communities beyond the reach of support teams to cutting the specialist staff who prevent at-risk children from being taken into care.

"Cuts to these crucial services merely create more problems and costs for the future.

"Ministers and council leaders should invest in children's centres as part of wider plans to stabilise council finances and provide a boost to parents and youngsters."

A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: "These figures must be seen in context. Essex County Council is one of the largest local authorities in the country, serving a population of over 1.5 million people.

"Our pre-birth to 19 Essex Child, Family Health Wellbeing model went live in April 2017 and is a ten-year contract that includes the previously separately commissioned children's centres, alongside the healthy child programme. This model continues to provide services across the county and is not a reduction in the previous reach of services delivered by children's centres.

"The services are run from a combination of 12 Family Hub buildings, one per district, and 38 linked delivery sites across Essex. Services are also delivered in other local community venues and family homes. The 12 Family hubs are each designated as children's centres.

"Although there has been a reduction in the number of designated children's centres, this is only a reduction in physical buildings – the breadth of service delivery and reach to families in accessing services across Essex has not been reduced. The age range for support has also been extended from 0 to 5 to pre-birth to 19, allowing for the whole family to be supported by one integrated team.

"Each of the 12 designated Family Hubs offers an integrated pre-birth to 19 service. Each hub, and its linked delivery sites, continue to offer a range of health, family support and early help services to meet the needs of the local community.

"The service allows flexibility to also meet parents in their homes or in communities in local outreach venues, rather than the families needing to travel to a building to access support.

"The model also ensures that there are integrated teams of family support and health practitioners working together around each Family Hub, maximising the skills mix of the whole workforce.

"The Essex Child and Family Wellbeing Service Hubs model is in line with the National Family Hub and Start for Life programme that has been rolled out across the country, with a focus on bringing integrated services together to improve access to early help support, improve the connections between families, professionals, services, and providers, and put relationships at the heart of family support.

"Essex County Council continues to prioritise support to families through this ten-year contract, with an ongoing clear focus on improving outcomes for children and families."

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