Four-fifths of staff believe Suffolk children’s centre changes will damage services, survey shows

More than four in five children’s centre staff believe that Suffolk County Council’s proposed redesign of services will make things worse for families, a UNISON survey released today shows.

The survey of centre staff showed that 83% thought the redesign, which involves cuts at 22 of Suffolk’s remaining 38 children’s centres, would negatively affect services, while the same number believe it will hit the county’s more vulnerable residents hardest.

More than four-fifths (81%) agreed with the view that the changes would be “devastating for the staff and children who use the services.”

Many pointed out that the changes will hit those in rural areas the hardest, with some service-users having to travel huge distances if their nearest centre closes, which will be near impossible for those who rely on public transport.

Staff also raised concerns that the council has not made any changes to its plans because of Covid-19, despite the huge effect the pandemic will have on services.

The economic impact will likely lead to increased homelessness, poverty and domestic violence and therefore demand on the service, but the redesign decreases the capacity of remaining centres, especially while they have to maintain social distancing.

Covid-19 will also have an impact on the voluntary groups that the council hopes will provide services in its family hubs.

One staff member said: “Although groups will be slow to start up again due to lack of confidence in the public, our services are going to go through the roof.

“Homelessness, low income, job losses, break ups, domestic violence, child neglect etc, the list goes on … This will take years to get over.”

While most staff support the use of volunteers to some degree, only 9% of respondents do so without reservation, with some warning that it could be the “thin end of the wedge” to replace paid staff or raising concerns that they are often left to cover volunteers who do not show up.

“These services are very well meaning,” said one respondent, “but they are funded often on a temporary basis and then the disappear as soon as the funding does.”

Suffolk County Council’s redesign involves switching from children’s centres to family hubs, cutting hours at 11 of them and closing another 11, although nine of those sites will be ‘repurposed’ to provide other services.

Staff don’t believe the council has properly examined how centres are currently being used before deciding on changes — just 4% said there had been enough research.

One member of staff said: “Although I am sure SCC has carried out their research on these matters I feel as though the majority of this has been done with figures and statistics. Whereas working front of house within a children’s centre you see/hear so much more than can be captured and logged.”

Despite the lack of research, staff are broadly supportive of the idea of family hubs, although they did raise concerns around how other changes would allow them to deliver the service.

But they were far more critical of the plans to make hubs part time and repurposing or closing centres, warning it would leave Suffolk families without services.

“I consider the most vulnerable will be the hardest hit,” said one respondent. “Localised access together with outreach is key for those who are not as mobile as others.”

The council claims that by closing buildings it can concentrate on ‘outreach’, with staff going into the community to deliver services.

But staff warn it’s failed in the past because of the significant costs involved in venue hire, staff time and travel, as well as concerns about the availability of suitable venues and storage of equipment.

UNISON Eastern regional organiser Winston Dorsett said: “The real experts about Suffolk’s children’s services are the staff who deliver them day in and day out.

“They’ve made it crystal clear that they don’t support these changes and think they’d be damaging to the very people they’re supposed to be supporting.

“If these cuts go ahead, parents in vast swathes of the county will be left without access to the vital services that centres provide.

“Suffolk County Council must listen to its staff and pause this hollowing out of our children’s services.”

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