11:57AM, Friday 12 July 2019
Campaigners fighting Buckinghamshire County Council (BCC) over plans to close more than half of the county's children's centres have lost their court battle.
BCC agreed at cabinet in March to close 19 out of the 35 centres it operates across the county and to turn the remaining sites into family support centres. The council says these new centres will provide a wider range of services for families with children up to age 19.
Its proposals were met with criticism from campaign group Save Bucks Children's Centres (SBCC), who have been fighting the plans with law firm Irwin Mitchell after an anonymous mother from High Wycombe launched a legal challenge.
The new programme - called the Family Support Service - is now due to be implemented on September 2, the council has announced.
A public consultation on the new plans ended in December 2018.
A high court hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London took place earlier this month, but today (Friday) it was announced that the judge, Dame Geraldine Andrews, had ruled in favour of the council.
SBCC is seeking permission to take its arguments to the Court of Appeal.
James Betts, representing the campaigners, said: “We are naturally disappointed with the outcome of this judicial review and are currently discussing the options with our client including an appeal against the decision.
“Our client brought this case as the children's centres in Buckinghamshire have been invaluable to her and her family.
"She remains of the view that the planned closures will have a major negative impact on her children and other families and young children across Buckinghamshire.
"We are aware that many families have found the current situation hugely distressing and it is important that their voices have been heard.”
BCC says it 'welcomes today’s decision to comprehensively dismiss a judicial review on all grounds, including failure to properly consult, failure to comply with statutory duties and procedural failures in the council decision-making processes'.
The council added that 'in handing down her decision to dismiss the claim for judicial review, the judge said she was satisfied that the consultation had been entirely fair and that the council carried out the consultation before it made the decision, took the responses properly into account, and it complied with all its relevant statutory duties.'
Warren Whyte, BCC cabinet member for children’s services said: “We are very pleased with the court’s decision to dismiss this judicial review.
"It is regrettable, however, that we have had to contest it at all, as this has been a very costly process – both financially and in terms of the time spent by our team in preparing for this hearing. These proceedings have caused anxiety for our staff and critically, could have shifted focus and energy away from the children and families who need our support.
“This has never been about withdrawing any services – quite the opposite; it’s about enhancing how we help families across Buckinghamshire with children of all ages. People who need extra support will be able to get it in a more targeted way under the new Family Support Service.
“The very reason we are making changes to our service is to make sure families and children in greatest need of help in Buckinghamshire get that help sooner.
"By providing those families the right support at the right time, as well as maintaining a universal offer for everyone at 16 family centres, we can work to prevent families’ issues escalating, by offering help before their problems get worse.”
The Council added it is committed to using the 19 former children’s centres for alternate provision from the autumn, which will be primarily for early years benefit and community use.
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