Families who yesterday won a dramatic reprieve for two local children’s centres have urged council bosses to completely scrap plans to close them.
Campaigners say they are pleased that the Town Hall put the brakes on the proposed closures of Fernbank and Hillside centres, but want it to go further than “merely ‘pausing'” the idea.
The council said the move was designed to save £1m from its budget after seeing its grants from the government cut in half over the last decade.
It said vacancy rates for childcare across the borough have increased and it has to subsidise places in 11 of the 20 council-run centres, as well as provide early years support for vulnerable children.
Yesterday, just hours after the consultation ended, the Town Hall announced it would halt the proposals, which could have gone through at next month’s cabinet meeting.
If approved, the two centres would have shut next autumn. Nearly 900 people wrote in and 1,311 people signed an online petition.
Reacting to the decision, parents from Save Hillside Nursery and Save Fernbank Nursery said: “We demand that proposals for closures to any children’s centres be scrapped altogether, rather than merely ‘paused’.
“We will continue to call on Mayor Philip Glanville to commit to safeguarding all subsidised childcare places and children’s centres into the future and ask him to make this a manifesto pledge.”
Campaigners welcomed the council’s commitment to take a broader look at early years provision across the borough and to “properly engage communities in conversations about this”.
The council said it would also set out plans for a new model in north and south Hackney for young children with complex needs.
It wants to turn some children’s centres into hubs for children and teenagers up to the age of 19, and link early years with health visiting teams “to provide combined support and guidance for young children and their families”.
Parents said they understand that the council is under huge financial pressure, but added: “We will not, however, stop fighting for the high-quality services and affordable childcare for babies, children and families in Hackney.
“The first three years of a child’s life is where the biggest impact can be made in terms of health, wellbeing and education outcomes. Affordable childcare and early years support is an investment, not a cost.”
Announcing the pause, Cllr Caroline Woodley, cabinet member for families, early years, parks and play, said she knew “what a huge challenge it can be to find affordable childcare, and the value of the brilliant support, advice and care that our staff give to children every day in the 20 centres in Hackney”.
Parents said they welcomed her comment “that children’s centres have never been able to accommodate all of the demand for affordable childcare in the borough”.
They added: “Throughout the campaign we have been told by Hackney Council that there wasn’t sufficient demand to justify centres being kept open, so it is gratifying to finally have this overwhelming demand acknowledged.”
The families said they had questioned the use of data about vacancy rates and “lack of evidence that other options had been fully explored and exhausted”.
They said: “ Throughout, there has also been a thread that closures were needed to redirect resources to the most vulnerable, when in fact these centres serve vulnerable children and families.”
Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott visited Fernbank nursery this week and backed families in their campaign.
She said: “Pausing closures is not enough. The council must commit to keeping the nurseries open.”
The uncertainty over the future of the centres future saw at least one nursery worker resign, parents said.
They added: “The stress and anxiety this has caused both parents and staff cannot be overstated.”
Families warned Hackney Council that it needs to rebuild trust because “this whole process has caused real harm to the community it serves”.
But Cllr Woodley explained that there will still be painful choices to be made further down the line.
She said: “This pause doesn’t change the reality that there isn’t enough money to continue with our current provision as it is, and we will face very difficult decisions about reducing and reshaping services in the years ahead.”