THE leader of Oxfordshire County Council has admitted that it was “damaging” for staff to be told that 37 children’s centres could be shut.
Ian Hudspeth was speaking last night at the final one of five public meetings held around the county to explain to voters why the council needs to save an extra £61m on top of savings of £201m already made or committed to.
During exchanges with members of the audience in Witney, he accepted it was unfortunate that staff had been shown a map showing suggested details of the closure of children’s centres and early intervention hubs.
He also accepted the briefing to staff, made before any decision was taken, had been a bad idea.
Asked if he accepted that the briefing had been damaging, he said: “Yes.”
Mr Hudspeth sought to reassure the audience at Henry Box School that no decisions had been made, and that plans for children’s centres were not concrete.
He said: “Children’s centres have been the big question over the last two weeks and, if funding is reduced, we will take 12 to 24 months to make sure we take a balanced decision.”
News that up to 37 of the 44 children’s centres in the county could close as part of budget cuts, due to a further reduction in Government funding for local authorities, was revealed in the Oxford Mail two weeks ago.
The threat to services for children and young people has caused a backlash at all five Talking Oxfordshire events. The others were held in Banbury, Didcot, Oxford and Wantage.
The county council’s capacity for listening to the views of voters was also called into question at the standing room-only meeting in the school’s main hall last night, where Mr Hudspeth made his case to hundreds of people.
Sue Moon, a member of the Oxon School Bus Action Group, formed this summer when the council proposed controversial changes to the rules on eligibility for free transport to school, said: “I think everybody in this room has things they would rather be doing this evening.
“Can you assure us it’s worth us being here?
“This council doesn’t have a great track record of actually listening.”
David Ricketts, a parent governor at Abingdon’s John Mason School, raised concerns about the impact the removal of four of seven early intervention hubs aimed at helping disadvantaged youngsters would have on schools.
The hubs were established two years ago as part of major changes to youth services in the county, carried out as a result of earlier funding cuts.
He said: “The partnership of schools in Abingdon use the early intervention service. That hub offers a whole range of services, and we’re talking about the most vulnerable people.”
There were also several questions about whether or not work had been done by the council to assess the potential impact of the loss of services.
Lexy Tuckwell, a campaigner against the children’s centre closures, said: “I’m glad to hear you say you will work with the community and the centres. You also said this is only a proposal stage.
“Are you going to do everything you can to work out the socio-economic cost of removing early intervention services, because there will be a lot of ramifications?”
Former children’s centre governor Steve Akers, who raised the issue of the threatened closures with Prime Minister and Witney MP David Cameron in Chipping Norton’s Market Place during a protest on Saturday, asked both Mr Hudspeth and the council’s chief executive, Joanna Simons, who was also on the platform, whether they were comfortable with the cuts.
He said: “Did you both come into public service to preside over a 40 per cent reduction in your budget by 2018, and to have to be defending and fending off the criticism you’re getting from an erudite and astute audience with your very tired mantra?
“I would imagine if we took a straw poll, everyone in this room is a Newsnight viewer and Radio 4 listener and sick and tired of hearing this. Will you drop the proposal of trying to close children’s centres?
“Do you not feel you have been hung out to dry by your Prime Minister?”
Mr Hudspeth said he did not feel hung out to dry, and reassured the audience that he regularly told Mr Cameron and Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, who is responsible for local government funding, about his unease over cuts.