Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Sure Start closures: there is always an alternative

Labour councillors are the frontline in protecting Sure Start. Responsibility for Sure Start cuts and closures ultimately rests squarely with the government. But town halls always have the opportunity to find alternatives to closure.

Labour Friends of Sure Start’s latest pamphlet aims to empower councillors and activists: to show that alternative ideas are out there and to equip them to challenge council officers to find more creative options.

Sure Start works. There is now an absolutely compelling evidence base to prove that children’s centres transform young lives and support families in their moment of greatest need. Which makes it all the more tragic that heartless government cuts are pushing Sure Start towards a point of no return.

Our pamphlet is avowedly practical and pragmatic. There is a hugely important role for communities, councils and staff to campaign together to reverse cuts and to resist centre closures. But in the meantime councils have to balance the books. Our pamphlet seeks to help them do so. Importantly, it does not make any revolutionary new proposals. Quite the opposite: it shows in very practical terms the good work going on already across the country. And our pamphlet does not claim to have all the answers – its aim instead is to empower those who are passionate about Sure Start to ask powerful questions.

LFoSS analysed freedom of information responses and Ofsted reports. We can reveal for the first time that Conservative councils have closed more centres than Labour councils have. And also for the first time our pamphlet proves that centres in Labour areas are more likely to be rated good or outstanding, while centres in Tory areas are more likely to be inadequate or to require improvement.

Quite simply, Tory councils do not care about Sure Start. Faced with budget cuts they choose the administratively easy option of closing centres. A superb community campaign forced Tory Lincolnshire to abandon plans to close 15 centres, but Tory Oxfordshire show little inclination to drop its plans to close 36 centres.

Closing centres is administratively easy ­­– but carries an immense human cost. The much more challenging option is to undertake a fundamental review of their position within wider partnerships and service delivery. This is the route being taken by innovative Labour councils across the country. Our pamphlet showcases this creativity and highlights particular opportunities in public health and early help. Both offer the chance to save significant amounts of money by reducing duplication, as well as to lever in additional resources and to enhance the offer provided by children’s centres. The pamphlet also highlights the importance of user involvement and co-design in services.

As well as creativity, it will take real determination to secure the future of Sure Start. But based on our research, Labour councils have this in abundance. Time and again it was clear that Sure Start was consciously being prioritised by councils because of clear political leadership. If every Labour councillor embraces this attitude, our pamphlet provides ample evidence that there are enough good ideas across the country, not just to save Sure Start – but to refashion it, re-energise it and guarantee its long-term future.

We are launching the pamphlet on Monday evening with Yvette Cooper, as well as Jenny Chapman and Sharon Hodgson from the shadow children’s team, and representatives of some of the most creative Labour councils. Please come along and share your views.

Quite simply, the closure of children’s centres is never an inevitability. Even in horrific austerity it is a choice. And as with every choice, there is always an alternative.

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Michael Pavey is director of Labour Friends of Sure Start and deputy leader of the London borough of Brent. He tweets @MikeyPavey

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