‘Absurd’: Parents and unions slam council over plans to cut children’s centres

Parents Beatrice Hackett, Yuliya Keselman and Natalie Aguilera with Cllr Alastair Binnie-Lubbock. Photograph: Noora Mykkanen

Parents have slammed Hackney Council’s proposal to restructure children’s centres – calling the consultation process “baffling”.

Campaigners with children at Fernbank and Sebright Children’s Centre nurseries, which could both close if no new operators are found, labelled the plans “absurd”.

Parents appeared at a Town Hall scrutiny hearing on Monday to call out the consultation for a shake-up of four children’s centres that is designed to save around £5m in the early years service.

If the proposals are approved, Fernbank and Sebright could shut by August 2025, while Hillside and Oldhill Children’s Centres would see changes in their services.

Mum Natalie Aguilera said she is “disappointed” to be faced with the same situation as in 2021, when the council proposed to close Fernbank and Hillside, but the plans were cancelled.

She said: “Unfortunately it appears history is repeating itself as we once again face issues related to a rushed timeline, an unfair consultation process with little room to influence the outcome, and inadequate, misleading use of data.

“We’ve been told yet again that cuts have to be made, but this is the choice made by the council.

“There’s also a concerning lack of engagement with the suggestions and recommendations the parents and the community made last time around in 2021.

“What has changed significantly since the last time, however, is the childcare environment, with a government proposal that would hugely increase demand for childcare just around the corner. This should have prompted a reassessment of the council’s approach.”

She questioned why the council didn’t explore the seven ways to increase income and reduce expenditure at the centres as proposed in the summary report by audit firm Ernst and Young (EY), and why none of the alternative options were mentioned in the consultation survey.

“The council’s decision to force these closures despite the alternatives is genuinely baffling,” she added.

If the proposals go ahead, the number of children’s centres in Hackney would “dwindle” down to nine, meaning the loss of 200 subsidised nursery places, which many low-income and single parents rely on, Aguilera said.

Hackney Council’s head of early years, Donna Thomas, defended the potential restructure, saying “fewer children” have been born in Hackney than in previous years, and just over 1,000 children were eligible for the free childcare offer, according to government figures.

She said with Whitehall’s free childcare offer about to expand, it is a good time to reshape children’s services.

Aguilera said “conflating” the issue of school closures with potential cuts to children’s centres is “absurd”, as demand for nursery places is higher than ever.

She said there are enough children for the 600 nursery places in question.

Parent and campaigner Beatrice Hackett said: “Once these centres are gone, they are gone.

“What is going to happen if the overall response in the consultation is negative?”

She criticised the council for the lack of transparency over the impact of the proposal and lack of an equalities assessment before the public consultation.

She said data had been buried in documents, requiring people to “plough through” everything to understand them, which most are not going to do.

“It’s taken time and I’m still confused,” she said.

Mum Yuliya Keselman criticised the briefings presented to the cabinet, including unclear graphs and population projections.

“How can the cabinet make decisions on the basis of a graph they can’t even see?” she said.

Impact on workers

Union representatives from Unison and Unite highlighted concern over the impact on staff, many of them women from “Black and Global Majority backgrounds” on relatively low wages, Hackney Unison’s branch secretary Matt Paul said.

He added that the consultation “fails to acknowledge that the plans would lead to more than 50 workers losing their jobs”.

“The exact numbers are not known, they’re not cited in the report, but we have requested this data from management.”

It appears that senior management and the cabinet wanted to get the consultation simply “done and out of the way”, he claimed.

He also accused the cabinet of breaking the council’s constitutional rule by “denying the public fair access to the relevant documents before giving green light to the consultation”.

“Besides the impact on families using the service, clearly there’s no equality if these cuts are to be made, and the pain will be felt disproportionately,” he said.

Unite’s branch secretary Steve Edwards said the main worry for staff is the impact on children, and that parents were “not kept in the loop as much about what the effect was going to be if this happened”.

“We’re mainly dealing with women, on part-time hours for various reasons, and this is potentially going to have a severe effect on that workforce,” he added.

Council’s reaction

With a budget shortfall, the council is legally obliged to balance it, group director for children and education Jacquie Burke said.

“So we have to shoulder our responsibilities and look at what the outcome of the consultation is, but as children and education director I will have to make savings in my directorate – there’s no getting away from it,” she continued.

“We just do not have enough money coming in to cover what we are currently spending, even with increased childcare coming in from government, and I can’t expect my colleagues to make all the changes and it’s not fair on residents either.”

Thomas argued that the number of children is projected to fall further in the next couple of years, with around 20,000 pre-school aged children (0-4) in 2018 compared to around 18,800 now.

“We are not just picking numbers out of a hat. We’re following the data that is available nationally to all local authorities and we have always done that and we’ll continue to do so,” Thomas said.

She pointed out that the council does not have a duty to provide affordable childcare, but a duty to “ensure there are sufficient childcare places and to ensure there are sufficient places for children in need to be supported”.

“If we can realise that income [£5 million], then we don’t need to do anything. I can come back at the end of the process and say, ‘We can keep these nurseries’, but I don’t know that right now.

“And past behaviour is usually an indicator of a future one – what we have now is an opportunity to look at where we are and how we might deliver a more sustainable model, and that’s all we’re doing.”

Thomas claimed the deficit in the early years service would continue to grow if “we don’t do anything”.

However, vice chair of the commission, Cllr Margaret Gordon, said she is not sure if enough has been done by the council to market the children’s centre vacancies.

She was joined by the scrutiny commission chair, Cllr Sophie Conway, in questioning the vacancy rate.

Conway said that as a Hackney resident it was “difficult to appreciate” it, after often hearing on the contrary that the borough’s children’s centres “are very much oversubscribed and in demand”.

Cllr Gordon added: “I do have some concerns about the timing of this consultation and the affordable childcare commission, but we haven’t really had the time to enact on those recommendations as well.”

Responses to the consultation, which closes on 24 April, have been low so far, officers told the scrutiny commission.

A number of mothers said after the hearing that many parents are holding off on taking part in the consultation until further discussions have taken place.

They said they feel “more confused now” than before the scrutiny commission.

Cllr Alastair Binnie-Lubbock told the Citizen that he is looking into options to call in the proposals.