FUNDING for Children’s Centres in Stroud is set to undergo a radical overhaul after the county council pushed ahead with plans to “reshape” services for families.
If approved at cabinet next week, the changes will mean five of the district’s seven centres will have their funding cut next year.
This new approach from Gloucestershire County Council will mean the district’s two remaining centres - The Park in Stonehouse and Treetops in Dursley - will be expanded to become children and family centres.
The man in charge of the policy, councillor Paul McClain, cabinet member for children and families at GCC, said the decision to push ahead with the controversial funding changes was necessary to support those most in need of help.
“We have a choice – to close our children’s centres like many other councils have done, or find a way to redesign support for our most vulnerable families,” he said.
“This new approach is built on what our most vulnerable families need.”
These super centres will be a base for professionals to provide support to those who visit, as well as co-ordinate outreach work to support people in their communities and homes.
Council leaders say this will mean more help for families in the most deprived areas and support a wider age range of children.
GCC says the move will free up £3.2m from its budget which will be reinvested into more children’s social workers.
However, it also means that the other five centres in Cashes Green, Stroud, Painswick, Wotton-under-Edge and Nailsworth will have their funding pulled.
This will leave Stroud town without a fully funded children centre from April 2017.
In order to plug these gaps, the council is asking parents, volunteers, schools and community groups to take over some of the current services such as clubs, activities, information and health advice.
Critics argue that while this means the centres won’t “close”, reduced funding will inevitably lead to “patchy and inconsistent” services and could destroy community networks.
Despite the new outreach service, there are also concerns that poorer families without access to transport will lose out on vital support and social interaction.
Rachel Fletcher from Stroud uses the Five Ways Children’s Centre in Cashes Green every week.
“I am a single mum who is struggling and I use the children’s centre a lot for support and help to get out of my flat to meet new people,” she said.
“I struggle badly with depression and anxiety and it is not easy bringing up a child on your own with minimal support.
“I cannot get to the other children’s centres due to transport issues and also it took me a very long time to get used to the one at Five Ways and trust the staff.
“Changes to this centre will have massive impact on my daughter and me as we have been using it since she was three months old.”
Currently the centres provide a range of services, including early year’s education, health advice, courses for expectant parents and individual counselling.
It is not yet clear which would be retained and which would have to be relocated to the upgraded children and family centres.
GCC has said the buildings will be used for education and childcare and provide a “network of universal services” for families delivered by parent and community groups.
But Lesley Williams, Labour county councillor for Stonehouse, said the changes posed “a raft of concerns”.
“Right now there are as many questions as there are suggestions. We just don’t know what these services are going to look like,” she said.
“How is this outreach service going to reach the most vulnerable if they have mental health or other medical problems but don’t know they need help?
“What kind of volunteers and organisations are going to step it to keep these centres open?
“How will Shire Hall make sure people are getting the proper support for these unfunded centres?
“We need more reassurances that this isn’t going to turn Stroud’s children’s services into a two tier system. Right now we need more answers.”
Stroud Mayor Kevin Cranston said he was disappointed the proposals had gone ahead.
"The professionally staffed children’s centres provide an immensely valuable service to a wide variety of people," he said.
"Research shows that when they are closed in favour of more focussed social work the number of problems goes up. Any saving will prove to be illusory as higher costs will emerge later.
"While the buildings will remain open there remains the question of who will cover the running costs.
“It is another example of how cuts in public spending impact upon people’s lives and is something that cannot just be left to the voluntary sector.
“This is a false economy as these centres offer universal support and thus reach families before problems become major concerns and save the public purse in the long run. Under the changes this will be lost.”
Sarah Lunnon, Green county councillor representing Stroud Central, also criticised the move.
“GCC are removing funding from Stroud's Children’s Centre even though there is evidence that this kind of network frontline investment actually reduces calls on council services in the future and so saves money,” she said.
“Why is GCC reducing this services, knowing it's storing up costs for later?
“Because of the dire financial crisis in council funding continuing austerity is causing.
“More children are being looked after by GCC social services and yet the very services that help struggling parents look after their children are being dismantled.
“We all notice the holes in our roads - what I wonder will make us notice the holes in our social services?"
Currently the services in all seven of Stroud’s children’s centres are provided on behalf of the council by charity Hill Valley & Vale.
But as part of the changes, a new contracting regime will also be introduced in December this year.
There will now be one single contract to run centres and services in both Stroud and the Forest of Dean.
The overhaul follows a four month public consultation between January and April 2015 which saw worried parents and councillors in Stroud grill council leaders and MP Neil Carmichael over the proposals.
A petition against potential loss of the services from the children’s centre in Nailsworth also gathered more than 550 signatures.
The public consultation in Stroud saw the majority of people disagree with the proposal to create the two super centres at the expense of the other five.
From the 136 responses received, 29 per cent strongly agreed or agreed they Stonehouse and Dursley.
However 50 per cent of responses strongly disagreed or disagreed with that plan.
Only 18 per cent of responses thought the changes would have a positive impact on them or their family.
This was compared to the 49 per cent who said it wold have a negative impact of them or their family.
GCC says the changes will also free up £3.2m from its budget which will be reinvested into more children’s social workers.
The total budget in 2016/17 for services for vulnerable children including early help, prevention and children’s social care is £80m, which is an increase of 6.7 per cent – 0r £5m – from last year.
On a countywide level, GCC is creating 16 expanded children and family centres. This means another 30 will have their funding pulled all together.
Approximately 10,000, or 11 per cent, of children in Gloucestershire currently live in poverty, with the majority of these living in the most disadvantaged communities.
The number of children in care in the county also increased by 5.3 per cent in the last year alone, and the number of children on a child protection plan has jumped up by 29 per cent.