Sure Start funding 'must be ring-fenced to save children's centres'

7 Apr 11
A children’s charity has called for funding for Sure Start children's centres to be ring-fenced again because of large cuts to the programme.

By Lucy Phillips

7 April 2011

A children’s charity has called for funding for Sure Start children’s centres to be ring-fenced again because of large cuts to the programme.

As a Local Government Association survey revealed that 63% of English councils were planning on cutting their Sure Start services, the Daycare Trust warned that children’s centres were facing closure across the country.

The grant used by local authorities to fund the centres was cut by 11% in last June’s Emergency Budget and by almost the same amount in the October Comprehensive Spending Review. Its ring-fence was also removed.

Anand Shukla, acting chief executive of the Daycare Trust, told Public Finance: ‘From Hull to Hampshire, Sure Start children’s centres are facing closure, leaving families devastated at losing their valued local provision.

‘Only now is a full picture of the cuts to Sure Start across the country beginning to emerge.

‘Daycare Trust is calling for the ring-fence on the Sure Start grant to be reinstated, to protect these much-loved services, and ensure every child gets the best start in life.’

The charity estimates 250 of England’s 3,500 children’s centres may close this year.  

Despite the reduction in central government funding, the coalition has maintained it is committed to the Sure Start programme, launched by the previous Labour government, and wants local authorities to continue their support for the centres.

The LGA said it did not want the ring-fence to be reinstated around the grant since it welcomed greater financial freedoms for councils. A spokeswoman said: ‘The problem with Sure Start and the Early Intervention Grant is they may have been un-ringfenced but the pool of grant has been reduced greatly, by around 25%. This is putting a great deal of pressure on council budgets and what they are able to continue to do.’

She added that the LGA survey, Council budgets, spending and saving 2011, showed local authorities had ‘tried to mitigate these pressures by focusing the resources they have on the most vulnerable families and neighbourhoods’.  According to the survey, 62% of those cutting their Sure Start budget plan to target resources at the most vulnerable families.

The charity 4Children stopped short of calling for the ring-fence to be reinstated but urged ministers to step in if necessary. Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, told PF: ‘We know that local authorities have some extremely difficult spending decisions to make but we urge them to prioritise children’s centres as investment now will lead to real savings in the long term. Government ministers have been clear that Sure Start children’s centres will play a key role in the future of family support and we call on them to monitor this situation very closely.’

Longfield said councils could find ways of making Sure Start centres ‘earn their keep’ by extending the services they offered, becoming ‘hubs for all children and family services’. She added: ‘Voluntary and community organisations stand ready to help councils find innovative solutions to these funding dilemmas.’

Sure Start centres also formed a central strand of the government’s social mobility strategy, Opening doors, breaking barriers, launched by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on Tuesday. However, Clegg himself has come under fire for reneging on a promise that noLibDem-run councils would close the service.

Conservative-run Hampshire County Council, which is currently consulting over slashing its Sure Start budget by £6m, has been threatened with legal action by a parent over its plans, which could result in the closure or merger of up to 28 children’s centres. The council is due to respond to the legal challenge shortly or face a possible judicial review.

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