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Sure Start hit as county prepares cuts of £2 million
Parents using Sure Start Centres in Hertfordshire could be hit with higher charges as part of a planned cost-cutting drive.
Opposition politicians have raised concerns that a proposed programme £2 million of savings could damage children’s centres and leave parents paying more.
The Conservative-dominated Hertfordshire County Council’s has drawn up plans to slice £1.8 million out of the budget, which funds more than 80 Sure Start Centres across Hertfordshire, including 14 in Watford, Three Rivers and Bushey.
Officials have said the cut will not lead to the closure of any centres but will mean service charge increases, managerial job losses and centres having to work together as "clusters" to accommodate their slimmer grants.
West Watford Labour councillor Nigel Bell said: "What we are concerned about is the possible effect on the frontline services of the nearly £2million cuts.
"While the implication is that the ‘savings’ will be mainly from the loss of the children’s centres managers when the new groups or ‘clusters’ of children’s centres are introduced next May,we are not convinced that important services will not be affected.
"The Sure Start and Children’s Centres are one of the great achievements of the last Labour Government, and we will defend them and their legacy against the Conservative County Council’s policy."
Sure Start Centres are public-funded organisations that provide a range to health and advice services to support new parents.
Last year the funding for the county’s 82 centres moved from the NHS to the county council.
Richard Roberts, the Conservative cabinet member for children's services, said: "The message is that Hertfordshire has 82 children’s centres and we are looking at commissioning 82 centres - i.e. we are closing none.
"And the way we are going to achieve this is by grouping the centres together and reducing the management and leadership but maintaining the quality and quantity of these services which families in Hertfordshire need."
Councillor Roberts also criticised Labour’s stance on the Sure Start reorganisation adding: "We are in an era of austerity as far as local government is concerned and we have to think really hard how to make savings and where to make savings.
"It really is head in the sand stuff to think we can make changes and not make efficiencies at the same time."
In a report to the children’s services cabinet panel, which met on Wednesday, officials said the changeover presented the council with "a number of opportunities".
One of these was to save around ten per cent of the grant given to the centres by making them work in "clusters".
The report said: "The general consensus has been that savings of circa ten per cent compared with the current budgets are achievable through moving from single, stand-alone centres to groups of two to five centres, alongside other efficiency improvements, increased charges, premises savings and greater use of volunteers to deliver services.
"The largest efficiency saving would be in reducing the number of centre managers and some small elements of admin."
Officials said the council did see the centres as an important part of improving the start children in the county got in life.
The report said: "Parents with young children will be supported to develop the parenting skills that will give their children a good start in life, mitigating the risks of higher cost support and interventions throughout childhood."
The savings plan was recommended by the children’s services cabinet panel and will go out for consultation before going to the ruling cabinet.
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