‘False economy’: Protesters again urge Hackney Council to rethink children’s centre closures

Diane Abbott MP (centre in a red coat) joined the protest. Photograph: Pete Deagle

Parents and children gathered outside Hackney Town Hall last night to protest the potential closures of two children’s centres – with the consultation ending tomorrow.

Hackney Council is proposing to close Sebright in Haggerston and Fernbank in Stoke Newington.

Old Hill children’s centre in Clapton and Hillside in Stamford Hill face being reduced to term-time-only childcare services.

One parent, Hannah Hollings, said: “Our little boy is at Sebright children’s centre. He’s just started and was on the waiting list for 13 months before he got a spot.

“I’m self-employed and my partner’s full-time but it’s literally the only childcare we could afford,” she continued.

“My partner grew up in the area and he went to the original Sebright nursery, so it’s important for us that our son goes to where we always wanted him to go.”

Hollings described the cost of childcare in the borough as “insane” and said: “There are some other nurseries nearby, but I can’t afford them.”

Protest organiser and campaign leader Natalie Aguilera previously told the Citizen that closing Fernbank and Sebright would be “an act of social vandalism”.

Natalie Aguilera with a message for Mayor Woodley. Photograph: Maya Sall

At yesterday’s protest, Aguilera held up a placard with a picture of Hackney Mayor Caroline Woodley campaigning for affordable childcare.

As she was holding it, she said: “What happened, Caroline? What happened to your principles?”

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, addressed protesters and said: “Children’s centres are important everywhere, but they’re particularly important in somewhere like Hackney.

“They enable family members to work, but more than anything else they secure our children’s future.”

Abbott later told the Citizen: “I know that Hackney Council is suffering a lot of cuts by the government, but I think nurseries are very important in an area like Hackney.

“I hope the council will think again and stop the children’s centres closures.”

Hackney South MP Meg Hillier was not at the protest, but said in a statement to the Citizen: “I do not want to see the closure of Sebright Children’s Centre.

“But 14 years of Conservative government has seen councils lose 60p in every £1 they used to receive in funding from the government.

“I’ve met with Mayor Caroline Woodley and raised parents’ concerns. I’m impressed the mayor is working hard at finding alternate suppliers so that no child is left without a place.

“But Hackney Council’s back is against the wall because of cuts to local authorities and 14 years of economic incompetence from this government.”

Hackney Downs Green Party councillor Alastair Binnie-Lubbock also spoke at the demonstration, and labelled the cuts a “false economy” that “feel really, really arbitrary”.

He said: “These cuts don’t make any sense because there is new entitlement coming in from September.

“So, it doesn’t make any sense when we know that that entitlement will cover the cost of what these cuts are supposed to be covering.”

This question was put to Mayor Woodley at last night’s cabinet meeting by campaigner Yulyia Keselman.

Woodley responded by saying the budget is taking into account that money and “that a Labour government in the future won’t guarantee the future of all 20 children’s centres”.

Councils without any Sure Start centres, of which Hackney has four, will be prioritised for funding, Woodley explained.

“If we overachieve on those savings, that would be very helpful towards our general fund, as that will mean that we won’t have to look again at making such difficult proposals in the near future,” she added.

Protesters on the Town Hall steps. Photograph: Suzanne Trotter

Keselman also asked the cabinet: “The EY Summary Report offers seven ways to increase income and reduce expenditure that have yet to be fully explored or implemented, and there is no mention of these in the consultation survey.

“Why have council officers not explored these alternatives before consulting on the option of children’s centre closures?”

Woodley replied: “On page four of the consultation paper, the council did set out that the current model provision is not financially sustainable.”

She added: “We’re implementing a number of the report’s recommendations in parallel to the consultation, with particular attention paid to forecasting children’s centre fees.”

The council is also “working to implement government reform to free entitlement funding and working to increase occupancy levels to 95 per cent, where achievable”, Woodley said.

“Our overall objective is to make the borough’s childcare system more sustainable, respond to growing demand for special education needs places, and make the savings required for the council to balance its budget over the next three years – no easy task,” she added.

In a statement to the Citizen, a Hackney Council spokesperson said: “We’re proposing to change how some of our children’s centres provide childcare – including by creating new specialist places for children with special educational needs or disabilities, and seeking alternative providers to take over the management of two centres.

“This is to help make the borough’s childcare system more sustainable, respond to growing demand for special educational needs places, and make the savings required for the council to balance its budget over the next three years.

“The current consultation runs until tomorrow (24 April), with a decision to be made by the council’s cabinet later this year.”

You can find the consultation here.