Plans to shut majority of children and family centres ‘part of strategy to modernise and re-target services’
Plans to reduce the number of children and family centres in West Sussex from 43 to 11 have been discussed by a county council scrutiny committee.
The changes form part of a proposed redesign of the county council’s Early Help provision which it says aims to improve the services offered to the most vulnerable children and families, making sure they receive the help they need.
During a meeting on Thursday (January 6), the committee ‘broadly supported’ the plans but raised a number of questions and concerns.
Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate & Gossops Green) agreed there was a need for more support, particularly in areas of deprivation, but didn’t think the data published by the council did enough to back up the proposals for the centres.
He added: “It seems to me we need the children and family centres more than ever.”
Jacquie Russell, cabinet member for children and young people, told the meeting that the Early Help service – which supports around 4,000 children a year on Early Help plans – had continued throughout the pandemic when the centres were closed.
She added: “Requests for service uptake were at a record high and that is pretty strong evidence that the service does not need to remain in a building.”
The centres provide support to families with children aged five and under and deal with issues such as child development, school readiness, parenting skills, and health.
But sometimes a building offers more than just a place to go for help and advice.
Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks & Burgess Hill South) shared the story of a resident whose child has a rare brain disorder and was ‘rescued’ after walking into her local centre and pouring out her soul to one of the staff.
She went on to meet ‘lifelong friends’ there.
Ms Lord herself described how, as a young mum new to the area, she went to a baby group at her local centre and ‘met friendly faces going through the same thing at the same time’.
The issue of mental health was raised by Ann Bridges (Con, Lancing), who said: “There is a need for parents and children to meet with other parents and children.”
One of the council’s concerns, though, is that the ‘centre-based’ approach did not necessarily reach those children and families most in need of help, which is a key point of the redesign.
Its aims were laid out in a report to the committee and included:
• Detecting problems early before they became more difficult to reverse
• Strengthening the support given to schools to help children and young people with attendance, achievement, attainment and health and wellbeing
• Aligning Early Help with social care so that all children and families are accessing the right help and protection from the most appropriate part of children’s services
• Supporting local partnerships such as Home Start to collectively improve outcomes for children and better identify when a child needs help.
Lucy Butler, executive director of children, young people and learning, said there had been an increase in the number of children and families using the Early Help services.
She added: “These changes follow an in-depth review but are also really an integral part of our modernisation and redesign across the whole of children’s social care.
“This new targeted model will be able to reach the most vulnerable children and families, will be able to really enable us to be much more community focused.”
Ms Butler added that she was aware that ‘change on this magnitude causes a lot of anxiety’ but told the meeting that many other authorities – including her old stamping ground of Oxford – had moved to this way of working.
She added: “We do know that when local areas go through this change, although it does provoke anxiety, the outcomes are beneficial for those children and families most in need.”
There were certainly some anxieties in Oxford, with campaigners, including the aunt of former Prime Minister David Cameron, appealing to the High Court for a judicial review in 2016.
They were turned down.
The West Sussex changes would save the council £1.95m but Ms Butler insisted that was not at the centre of the proposals.
She said: “This is not about the budget, this is about a modernisation of our services and a re-targeting.
“The budget’s not driving this. It’s being driven by the fact we want to re-profile and redesign our services so that they’re more effective.”
The committee report said removing the Early Help service from some locations would open them up to potential use by other council services or they could be leased on the open market to bring in more money.
It added that several early expressions of interest had already been received, including an offer to buy the sensory bus, which operates in Mid Sussex.
The committee filed a string of requests and statements. They included:
• A request for clarity on how the proposals would improve the identification and support of vulnerable children and families
• The need for a communication plan to show residents how to access the services, especially those in areas where centres close
• Clarity on the impact of the proposals on partners who use the centres for their own services
• More data and information on the usage of each centre and the service provided by them
• More information on the outcome of similar changes in other areas.
The committee’s points will be put to a meeting of the cabinet in February and a 10-week consultation with councillors, partners and service users is expected to start in March.