Suffolk County Council has spent less on children and young people than many other counties for years. Suffolk residents have consistently shown in surveys that they think having better services for children and young people is one of their highest priorities. Labour Councillors have tried to save the eXplore card, campaigned against the cuts to youth clubs, and demanded better support for pre-schools and nurseries. But even we were astonished when the Conservatives who run Suffolk County Council announced in the Spring that they were going to have a “review” of Children’s Centres.
In the run-up to the General Election in 2010 we predicted that the Conservatives would close Children’s Centres if they won the election, and they said we were lying. Ben Gummer, the Conservative MP for Ipswich, held street demonstrations to make people think that the Centres were “safe with the Conservatives” and we have the photograph from the Ipswich Star to prove it. No doubt Mr Gummer, and Mr Aldous in Waveney, are deeply upset that these Centres are now due to be closed just before the next General Election, thus proving that our warning was justified, and their reassurances were hollow. Disagreement within the Tory ranks in Suffolk might explain why the original plans for publishing their proposals in the Spring were put off until July, and the original intention to take the decision in September has now been put off until January. Even now, the County Tories might decide to put off the final decision until June 2015, so that they can claim that they have not closed any Centres before the election. But they have made it completely clear that they do intend to close the Centres, as they have already factored the “saving” into next years’ budget.
When the Labour Government launched Sure Start it was to make a real effort to address the inequalities between children, and to provide Centres where parents could access the whole range of help, advice, courses and self-help groups in one friendly venue. Suffolk is one of the most unequal Counties in the country. In some parts of our County there are already well-established and well-resourced communities that do not need any additional help. In other parts, especially in parts of Ipswich and Lowestoft, families struggle to provide the healthy learning environment in which their children can thrive. Which is why, when the Tories did finally publish their list of Centres they propose to close, we were not just angered that they were intending to close nine of them in addition to the one already closed, but that some of the ones proposed for closure are in the areas where their services are needed the most. There did not seem to be any clear and logical criteria for deciding which Centres to close, other than the convenience to the Council.
In an ideal world, Suffolk’s Labour councillors believe that every community should have a Children’s Centre, so that there is one within walking distance of the majority of parents. But we acknowledge that the Conservative/Lib Dem government’s savage cuts to local authority spending make that currently impossible. We look forward to a time when Suffolk, along with other councils across the country, can afford to deliver all the services that residents want and need. But until that time comes, we think it is completely unacceptable that Children’s Centres should be closed down in the areas of greatest need, and we will continue to campaign as vigorously as we possibly can to get those Centres saved or, if they are closed, to have them replaced as soon as possible.