The two-day judicial review, which took place at the Royal Courts of Justice, was granted last month by a High Court judge following a legal challenge by a High Wycombe parent, who is also a member of the Save Buckinghamshire Children's Centre campaign.
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The parent's legal team argued that Buckinghamshire County Council's decision to close 19 of its 35 children's centres as of September was unlawful.
The local authority announced in March, following a public consultation, that it would be closing 19 of its centres and turning the remaining 16 into ‘family centres’, aimed at children up to the age of 19. The move formed part of its plans to restructure its early help service to achieve budget savings of £3.1m.
During the judicial review, Fenella Morris QC, who represented the parent, claimed Buckinghamshire County Council’s decision to close the centres was made before a public consultation took place.
She argued that the council had treated its savings target as a ‘fixed requirement’, ruling out any possibility of keeping services as they were. The consultation only included options that would deliver the savings.
Buckinghamshire County Council’s consultation proposed three options:
- Option A - continue with the current way of providing services, but with a 30-35 per cent reduction in all services.
- Option B - remodel the children’s centres with a network of family centres.
- Option C - provide family outreach only.
However, the council’s defence, James Goudice QC, told the Judge, Mrs Justice Andrews, that the council’s aim in restructuring services is ‘nothing less than to help the most vulnerable children'.
He said that the council had ‘carefully considered its legal duties’ and the restructuring had to be achieved at a time of austerity and ‘massive strain on the council’s finances in particular’.
Mr Goudice went on to argue that ‘the council had identified that the current children’s centre model was not working effectively as it should, and it could work more efficiently if there was more of a focus on services rather than buildings [children’s centres]’.
He referred to research carried out by independent research company BMG on behalf of the council into the use of the centres.
Mr Goudice also argued that as per Government guidance, children’s centres should be offered as part of wider early years support.
He went on to say that the council had sought the public’s view on ‘all options’, which included maintaining services as they stood.
But, Mrs Morris, representing the parent, argued, ‘If keeping the current level of provision was a real option, as the council seeks to contend, then it was not properly consulted upon, since consultees were not given information as to how it compared with the other options.’
The presiding judge, Mrs Justice Andrews, is expected to make a decision in the next few days.
The parent from High Wycombe, who brought the legal challenge against the council, said, ‘The children’s centres have been a lifeline for me - like an extension to my family. They have helped me through tough times, it’s thanks to them that I am the parent and person I am today. I would be lost without them.
‘I just hope that the judge rules in our favour as we need these children’s centres to stay open. I am not sure what I would do if they were not here - we will just wait and see what happens now. Thank you to the legal team involved, they have been fantastic.’
Alka Dass, Save Bucks Children’s Centres lead campaigner, who attended the High Court hearing, said, ‘We are hoping for a positive outcome - it’s been a long two-year battle, we have come very far and now we wait.
‘We have had many families who have come forwards and informed us of how the children’s centres have helped them as parents and their families and how they are worried about their centres closing. We have lost staff along the way due to uncertainties of their jobs.
‘The children’s centres are a vital support for many, they bring people together, they support families and help them in the long-term. Closing them would be the wrong decision to take. We hope to hear the decision very quickly.'
Warren Whyte, cabinet member for Buckinghamshire County Council's children’s services, said, 'We can confirm that work will continue on implementing our plans to deliver a new Family Support Service in the meantime. Children’s Centre services will continue, from all current sites, until the end of August.'
Buckinghamshire County Council originally proposed replacing 35 of its children’s centres with nine hubs in 2017 and launched a public consultation the following year. However, the council was forced to abandon its plans following campaigning by parents.