Plans to cut millions from early help services in East Sussex have been given the go ahead by a senior county councillor this week.
On Monday (October 7), East Sussex County Council’s lead member for children and families Sylvia Tidy approved a raft of measures intended to cut £2.6m from the authority’s spending on early help services.
As part of these changes – known as the revised Early Help Strategy – the council will be pulling out of 10 of its children’s centres, potentially leading to their closure by April 2020 unless alternative providers can be found.
According to the council the revised approach is intended to ‘focus limited resources on services rather than buildings’.
In a statement issued after the meeting, Cllr Tidy said: “With reductions in central government funding, an increase in the number of families and young people needing support and increasing costs, we need to make sure we use our increasingly limited resources where they can have the greatest impact.
“Our keyworkers work with some of the most vulnerable families and young people in the county to overcome issues they face and prevent the need for intervention from our social workers. The revised strategy will ensure this work in safeguarded.
“And although we will be operating from fewer buildings, we are confident that we will be able to prioritise our £4.4 million budget to deliver the right support to the vulnerable families and young people who need it.”
The 10 children’s centres to be affected by the proposals are: Seaford, Chailey, Ringmer, Battle, West St Leonards, Old Town (Eastbourne), Crowborough, Rye, High Weald in Ticehurst and Egerton Park in Bexhill.
The council says it also intends to continue offering services on a room-hire basis from children’s centres based out of externally-owned buildings in Heathfield, Newhaven and The Bridge in Hastings.
Hampden Park Children’s Centre, meanwhile, is close outright with its services to be relocated to Shinewater Children’s Centre.
The authority will also be seeking new providers for two council-run nurseries in Bexhill (Cygnets and Rainbow), although it guaranteed to continue running the services until September 2020 in light of concerns from residents.
The proposals came in for criticism from a number of councillors present at the meeting on Monday.
They included Hampden Park councillor and Liberal Democrat group spokesman Alan Shuttleworth.
He said: “There is no doubt that implementing these recommendations will leave the most vulnerable families, children and young people in greater need [and] will end up costing the authority more money.
“The decision you are looking at making today is going to be an attack on the most vulnerable and that is supposed to be one of our key objectives as a county council; to look after the vulnerable.”
Cllr Shuttleworth also called on Cllr Tidy to refer the decision to the full council, arguing it was too large a decision to be made by a single councillor due to, what he described as, “wider implications on whether we are actually carrying out our statutory duties”.
Criticism was also levelled by Labour group co-leader Trevor Webb, who argued the proposals would have a significant impact on deprived communities within East Sussex.
Meanwhile, Bexhill South councillor Simon Elford (Con) raised concerns about the timing of proposals.
He said: “Trying to find alternative providers is obviously the way we can go forward, what I am worried about is the cost and I am a bit worried about the timeframe.
“It says you want this all done by April 2020. I would be surprised if you can get these providers in place and ready to go by 2020.
“I think the timescales are really, really, really tight and [need] a little bit of leeway to try and negotiate further and get better deals.
“It is really important we try and find providers that are going to offer a good value service and not increase the cost too much. But in the time frame [we have], it worries me.”
In response, the council’s director of children’s services Stuart Gallimore said the timeframe was “deliberately tight” in order for the council to benefit from the full year effects of the cuts.
Officers also said the council is already in talks with alternative providers for many of the children’s centres.
Detailed proposals for the future of the individual centres are expected to come before the council’s lead member for resources in January 2020.