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Demand for clarity on Royal Borough plans to close children centres

Angry opposition councillors have called for clarity on the Royal Borough’s plans to close children’s centres and switch to a hub-based model.

At a virtual Adults, Children and Health Overview and Scrutiny Panel on Thursday, councillors were informed that a decision made by cabinet on April 30 to accept a report proposing the closure of multiple children’s centres in the borough in favour of a hub-based model was lawful.

However, the panel agreed to send the report back to cabinet, requesting more clarity on the matter.

The decision had been called in for discussion by the scrutiny panel by five opposition councillors who questioned the legality of the decision, but the members were informed that there were no legal issues as a final decision had not yet been made on which centres would close.

The original report was based on a 12-week consultation held before lockdown that received 501 responses. About 36 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposals, 32 per cent disagreed, and 32 per cent stated they were either neutral or did not know.

Opposition councillors were informed at the meeting, however, that a second ‘implementation’ consultation was set to be held after June, following which a final decision would be made on which centres would close.

Many councillors were left confused as they, and many residents, considered the original consultation to be the only one. Opposition councillors also questioned why a proposed list of closures was included in the report when no decision had been made.

Cllr Simon Werner (Lib Dem, Pinkneys Green) said: “The role of the report should have been to set out the council’s strategy for the future of children’s centres, the strategy to focus on hubs and focus on vulnerable children. This council’s strategy was then to be passed to AFD (Action For Children), to carry out further consultation on how that strategy would be implemented.

“But the report that was laid out at cabinet goes beyond its brief to lay out how it should be implemented. It goes through in detail which centres are to close, without any proper analysis being carried out on how those decisions are being made.

“The way forward is for the paper to be sent back for some revisions so it actually reflects what’s actually going to be happening, and some clarifications, then for the revised report to then go back to cabinet for approval.”

Speaking at the meeting, Royal Borough director of children’s services Kevin McDaniel said: “The decision that was placed before cabinet was not to make definitive decisions on the closure of those centres, the report was around setting a commissioning intention for the council’s direction and there’s clearly more work to do.

Royal Borough head of law Elaine Browne confirmed that the cabinet’s decision had been lawful as there has not yet been a decision made to close any centres. But she did add that there ‘could have been some clarity’ about what decision the cabinet was making.

The majority of the panel agreed to return the report with clarifications to cabinet later this month, where they will vote on it again. If approved, the second consultation will then take place over the summer, with the results revealed to cabinet in July or August.

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