In all the hullabaloo about tonight’s television debate, you might have missed the most significant policy development of the election campaign so far. Labour estimate that a Tory election victory could lead to the closure of 1,000 Sure Start centres. This represents a third of all the centres open today. And it would mean a virtual halving of centres since 2010. Talk about cut to the bone!
The Tories have already closed over 700 Sure Start centres. Every single closure was a tragedy. The human cost has been immense. Across the country mums have lost their support networks. And communities have lost access to high quality interventions to tackle critical issues such as child development, social isolation and maternal wellbeing.
Even worse than the human cost has been the cost to social infrastructure. Sure Start centres are that rarest of institutions: genuinely cross-departmental hubs where health visitors rub shoulders with employment advisers, and nursery teachers chat with citizens advice bureau workers. In an era of contracting budgets, Sure Start centres should be the backbone of a new system of integrated services, delivered at the grassroots in supportive, community settings.
Instead a Tory victory may lead to 1,000 more closures. This would be carnage, pure and simple.
The Tories deny it, of course. Just as David Cameron accused Gordon Brown of scaremongering for suggesting that Sure Start was not safe in his hands. Then Cameron closed 700 centres. And of course the coalition ruled out top-down reorganisations of the National Health Service, before imposing the biggest restructure since Bevan. And tuition fees … well you get the point.
Of course, none of us is immune from a spot of campaign hyperbole. But Labour’s figures do look about right.
We know that the Tories are committed to continue austerity for non-protected public services. Sure Start is a non-protected service. We know that the Tories removed the ringfence around Sure Start – and then removed the ringfence around all early intervention funding. That lumped Sure Start into general local government funding. And we know that the Tories slashed local government funding by over a third in real terms, and that this will continue under them. We also know that the Tory response to Labour’s excellent policy to substantially increase Sure Start childcare places was to denounce Sure Start as ‘unviable’.
So is it unreasonable to believe that the party which closed more than 700 Sure Start centres could now close 1,000 more? If the Tories would have us believe differently, let us see what their Sure Start policy is. It is literally years since any Tory frontbencher said anything significant about Sure Start.
At a time of contracting budgets it is glib to simply say we should invest more. But Sure Start is unique. If we believe in prioritising prevention; if we believe in reaching out to those families facing the biggest struggles; if we believe in joining-up services; if we believe in local, grassroots innovation, then we must prioritise Sure Start.
To overlook this fantastic opportunity would be a crying shame. To have closed over 700 centres is a travesty. To close 1,000 more would be a catastrophe.
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