‘Groundhog Day’: Parents fighting to save two children’s centres hit out at council’s ‘tick-box’ consultation

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

Parents of children at two children’s centres at risk of closure are becoming increasingly frustrated with Hackney Council’s consultation process – saying it “feels like Groundhog Day”.

Families from Fernbank and Sebright claim the Town Hall has not acted upon feedback from a previous consultation.

Back in 2021, Hackney Council was considering closing Stoke Newington’s Fernbank and Hillside children’s centre in Stamford Hill.

The plans were eventually put on hold, with the council writing to parents to say that the pause was partly down to “concerns about the consultation process”.

“After 2021, trust between parents and the council was lost,” said Natalie Aguilera, one of the leaders of the campaign against the closures.

“We told the council that future consultations would require increased engagement from parents, but three years have passed and they haven’t acted on our recommendations.”

Instead, Aguilera said this round of consultations feels like a “tick-box exercise”.

The public consultation on the potential closures of Fernbank and Sebright began in January and is set to end on 24 April.

The process has included five meetings between parents and the council, with the final meeting occurring on 25 March.

Following the meeting, a parent with a child at Fernbank who was involved in the campaign to stop the closures in 2021, said “it feels like Groundhog Day”.

Diane Abbott, pictured at Fernbank in 2021, has voiced her support for children’s centres.

Aguilera said that representatives from the council behaved “as though the closures are already happening”.

“Many of us continue to be confused about the council’s rationale for the closures and we are just not getting clear answers to even the most straightforward of questions,” she said.

“One of the most frustrating elements is the options we’ve been given as parents – the consultation process should outline alternative discarded options, and it doesn’t offer anything other than closures or the question of alternative providers.”

Aguilera said that if the consultation concludes that parents are against the proposals, the council has offered no “plan B”.

The Citizen asked Hackney Council if it has an alternative option to source the £4 million it hopes to save if the response to the consultation is an overwhelming “no”.

A spokesperson said its plan B is listed on page three of the consultation, which says that “if a suitable alternative provider cannot be found by autumn 2024, we propose to close Sebright and Fernbank children’s centres by August 2025”.

If the closures go ahead, places at Hackney children’s centres will reduce by a third.

Oldhill children’s centre in Clapton and Hillside children’s centre are also facing a reduction to term-time-only childcare services.

“The options are closed off, and make it sound like there’s no other choice,” said Aguilera.

She pointed to the Hackney Commission into Affordable Childcare, which detailed possible savings in childcare services, but said “none of those were mentioned in the survey questions”.

“Hackney is the third poorest borough in London – we need these affordable childcare places,” Aguilera added. “It pays back. It’s an investment.”

Aguilera concluded by saying that closing Fernbank and Sebright would be “an act of social vandalism”.

A Hackney Council spokesperson said: “In 2021/2022, we spent on average £666 per year per child aged 0-4 years, the second highest in London, compared to an average £242 spent per child in similar boroughs. This is because Hackney has continued to subsidise childcare in children’s centres, unlike most local authorities. The proposals to remove surplus places from children’s centres should support the sustainability of the remaining children’s centres and the wider sector.”

They added: “There are sufficient places for children to take up their funded entitlement from April, and we will continue to monitor places before we proceed with the proposed changes.”

You can find the consultation at consultation.hackney.gov.uk/children-education/childrens-centres-consultation.

Update: this article was amended at 5.10pm on 12 April to add a further comment from the council regarding childcare and the consultation, and to change the savings figure to £4m from the £5.5m stated previously.