The Save Kent’s Children’s Centres group protested outside County Hall in Maidstone last week during the final meetings of the full council before the children’s centre consultation closes on 4 October.
The council says it needs to make savings of £1.5m on children’s centres. It has identified 16 ‘lead centres’, larger buildings in communities in which it says there is greater demand for early support services, which will co-ordinate services across smaller ‘linked centres’ under the proposal.
Hannah Arnold from Whitstable, who has two children, volunteered to set up a Save Kent’s Children’s Centres Facebook group following concerns raised about the proposal at a local parents' forum meeting in July.
The group wrote to all the members of the county council, distributed leaflets and petitions on local streets and visited local toddler groups to gain support. They also set up a consultation for people with learning difficulties to help them read through the document outlining the proposals.
The Save Kent’s Children’s Centres campaign has recruited 320 members and collected over 870 signatures for an online petition against the closures. It has also been backed by the Kent Trades Union Councils.
Mrs Arnold expressed her surprise at the response to the protests. ‘In the last two-and-a-half months this has just ballooned beyond anything we could ever have expected. We’re just a group of local mums and we’ve found ourselves in the middle of this great campaign.’
She said that the group accepts there is a need to make savings. ‘We all understand the times we’re living in – two members of my family have been made redundant this year – but we’re saying that the answer isn’t to cut services, it’s to work smarter. You could be bringing additional health and education services into the existing buildings.’
Jenny Whittle, Kent County Council cabinet member for specialist children’s services, said, ‘We are facing difficult financial times which means tough decisions have to be made. In effect, we are losing a third of central Government funding for children’s centres so we have no choice but to make savings. This consultation is about reducing building, management and administration costs so we can continue to deliver vital frontline services to the people who need them most. We are not reducing services but where they are delivered may change – for example, they may be delivered in a community building, which already happens across Kent.’
Ms Whittle will visit every children’s centre affected by the proposed closures. She added, ‘No decisions have been made about the future of these centres and we are closely looking into the demands of each community that is affected by the proposal.’
Mrs Arnold said the Save Kent’s Children’s Centres group remains optimistic about the outcome of the consultation. ‘We just hope they’re listening to us. We feel so strongly about it. I don’t know what I would have done without our centre. One of my children has a whole host of health problems and there are no words to describe the amazing, wonderful support we got, whether it’s just asking how you are or delivering practical support. The story is the same for so many people who say they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the centres.’
The consultation closes on 4 October.