‘Buildings create community’ argue petitioners opposing closure of children and family centres

‘Services can be provided without buildings – but the buildings create community’.

This was the message when a petition calling for West Sussex County Council to halt the proposed closure of some of its children and family centres was presented.

The petition, which attracted more than 10,000 signatures – though only 3,683 have been verified as having a link with the county – was discussed during a meeting of the full council on Friday (March 19).

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Councillors decided by 44 votes to five, with 13 abstentions, that the petition and the debate they had held should be considered as part of the ongoing public consultation.

Proposals would see the majority of West Sussex's children and family centres close

A call from Labour leader Michael Jones to support the petition did not go to the vote.

The petition was launched in response to the proposed redesign of the council’s Early Help service.

The changes – which would save the council £1.95m by 2022/23 – are aimed at making sure the services reach the most vulnerable children and families in the county, helping them as early as possible to make sure they don’t head down the social care route.

With demand for the services growing, the council aims to focus support where it is needed most, working more closely with schools to identify problems and provide help.

While the idea of making sure the most vulnerable receive the help they need has been roundly supported, there has been less support for the way the council plans to proceed.

Of the 43 children and family centres in the county, the proposal is for 11 to remain open, running full-time and incorporating the Find It Out youth advice centres.

Jacquie Russell, cabinet member for children and young people, told the meeting that, of the 32 other centres, 15 were housed in libraries, nurseries and churches, which the council had no authority to close.

Mrs Russell said the other 17 ‘may or may not close’ but confirmed that the council had already received some external expressions of interest in them.

Denying that the consultation was ‘meaningless’ or that the proposals were ‘effectively a done deal’, she added: “A review of the current centre-based offer has identified that this method of service provision is not necessarily reaching those families that need us.

“The number of vulnerable families in attendance at those centres where the service proposes to withdraw are either very low or non-existent.”

Her views were not shared by others.

After sharing a number of stories from people who use the centres, petitioner Catherine Arnold told the meeting that some of the benefits of having the buildings – such as breast feeding clinics, family liaison rooms, and identifying domestic violence – could not be replicated in people’s homes.

She said: “As a user, when I was pregnant for the first time, my husband was sent out of the room and I was asked ‘are there any issues at home – is there anything you would like to tell me confidentially?’

“How do you do that in a home when the partner is sitting on the sofa with his wife or girlfriend?”

Ms Arnold added: “Services can be provided without buildings – but the buildings create community.

“Quite frankly, that community has been decimated by Covid and yet you are making a substantial change to Early Years and children’s services right now in the middle of a pandemic.”

Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks & Burgess Hill South) shared her own story of being a young mum new to the area and how the centres had been so important to her wellbeing.

She said: “While this council desperately needs to fix what’s happened in children’s services, this big retreat from support within our communities is wrong.”

The outcome of the consultation will be considered by the cabinet in July, when a decision will be made. The redesign is provisionally scheduled to come into effect in October.

To find out more about the proposals and to take part in the consultation, log on to yourvoice.westsussex.gov.uk/early-help-redesign