OXFORD Mail local government reporter Freddie Whittaker takes a detailed look at how looming Oxfordshire County Council budget cuts will affect services. Today, in the first of the series, he reports on concerns for the future of children’s centres in the county
A PLEDGE to protect the county’s children’s centres from closure despite £800,000 of cuts hasn’t got everyone convinced.
Oxfordshire County Council has vowed not to close any of the 44 facilities, but users have their doubts about how they will run after the money is slashed from their budget in 2014.
Oxfordshire’s 44 children’s centres cater for at least 20,000 youngsters across the county, in both deprived areas and remote rural locations.
Centres in disadvantaged areas can provide services for up to 700 children under five, and cost around £390,000 a year to run.
They provide a base for events, access to family support and outreach services, health and wellbeing facilities and access to advice, information and guidance.
Smaller, more rural centres cost around £97,000 to run and typically help 450 families. Schools manage 14 of the centres, 15 are managed by the voluntary sector and 15 are directly managed by the council.
The proposed saving was announced as part of a package of £46m of extra cuts to services in the county after the council received a poorer-than-expected grant from central Government.
But in an impact assessment document, the council itself admitted there could be redundancies, and other services could be affected.
The report said: “There is a serious risk on the impact of statutory and crisis-led services if early intervention and prevention services are reduced to a significant degree.
“There is strong national evidence that an investment in early intervention reduces the risk of specialist statutory interventions that are potentially more intrusive and disruptive to children, young people and family lives.”
It went on: “There may be a negative impact on service delivery during any period of uncertainty whilst options are discussed and through any period of transition from existing services to a newly designed service.”
Opposition councillors have also raised concerns about the effect the cuts will have.
Liberal Democrat group leader Zoe Patrick said: “We’re worried that what they’re going to be doing is reducing the services at some of the more rural centres. They say they’re going to try to protect the services in disadvantaged areas, but at the moment we don’t know how they’re going to do that.
“A lot of these services are now run from the early intervention hubs, and we have concerns about how they are running already.”
She said the threat of redundancies would also create uncertainty among staff and damage morale.
Katrina O’Malley, who attends weekly children’s centre events in Bicester and Glory Farm with her three-year-old daughter Kate, fears cuts in funding could harm the services in the future.
She said: “I think they provide an excellent service, and if they had to be open to a more narrow section of the community in the future because of funding cuts that would be a shame.”
She added: “But it would be important to keep them open for the parts of society they were set up for.”