Children’s centre campaigners to launch legal action over ‘misleading’ council consultation

Campaigners outside the Town Hall. Photograph: Pete Deagle

Campaigners protesting the proposed closures of two “life-saving” children’s centres in Hackney are to take the council to court over its “misleading” consultation process.

“Regrettably, our clients have no choice but to issue urgent judicial review proceedings,” said lawyer Alex Rook, who is representing the families. “We expect to issue the claim early next week.”

The decision comes after the council continued to defend the lawfulness of its consultation on the closures of Fernbank and Sebright children’s centres – even after another two claimants were added to the five who initially fronted the legal challenge.

The council’s consultation also proposed a reduction of services at Hillside and Old Hill children’s centres to term-time-only childcare.

The claimants have described the services the provided by children’s centres as “vital” during “a time when the cost of living is proving a burden for many families”.

“The main issue our clients have with the consultation is that it is predicated on the fact that Hackney says that they have to make these savings,” Rook previously told the Citizen.

“However, we believe this is misleading, and that’s reflected within the consultation.”

Rook continued: “[The consultation] starts from a position of fact that they have to make the savings here, when in fact, they could be made elsewhere, or not at all, for example by dipping into their reserves in order to save these essential services.”

Hackney Council rejected the accusations, telling Rook it does “not accept your criticisms of the consultation, and considers that the consultation was fair and lawful”.

In a formal response to the campaigners’ letter before claim, which was submitted in April and warned the council to expect a legal challenge, the Town Hall said it “does consider it necessary to achieve savings in the children’s service in order to reduce its overall funding gap”.

It added: “Identifying a need to deliver savings does not suggest that such savings are inevitable and unavoidable. Nor does it necessarily imply that no alternative is available.”

The letter before claim criticised Hackney Council’s lack of transparency over its use of a report by Ernst and Young, which it commissioned in 2023 to deliver an independent review of the borough’s nursery provision.

The council again rejected this criticism.

Flaws in the consultation process were also picked out by councillors at last month’s children and young people’s scrutiny commission, who said they had “strong reservations” over the proposals to shut the children’s centres if no alternative provider can be found by September next year.

In a report addressed to Mayor Woodley, the commission criticised the wording of the consultation, saying the option to “oppose” or “support” the closures “may inflate expectations” over the likelihood of these centres remaining open.

Natalie Aguilera of the Save Fernbank campaign told the Citizen: “We are pleased to see such a critical response to the council’s misleading, confusing, poorly thought-out and poorly evidenced proposals.”

Aguilera hopes the council “takes this response and the issues raised by the committee deeply seriously” and does not make any decisions on the future of the centres “off the back of these proposals or the unfair – and, we believe, unlawful – consultation process”.

She also reiterated the campaign’s goal that the “council instead commits to keeping all children’s centres open, with no cuts to any affordable childcare places”.