Facing the axe: the SureStart centre in South Lynn. Picture: Paul Tibbs

Controversial proposals to close most of the SureStart children’s centres across West Norfolk have been slammed, with the public being urged to take a stand against the plans.

Norfolk County Council announced this week it wants to close all but one of the SureStart centres in the borough, stating it intends to spend money “on frontline services rather than buildings”.

The authority, which has launched an eight-week consultation period, plans to take services “out of the buildings and into the community” and hold outreach sessions at venues such as libraries, village halls, community centres and schools.

But Alexandra Kemp, county councillor for Clenchwarton and South Lynn, warned the closures will hit parents and children in need the hardest and could lead to more children going into care.

“The county council’s plans would be a massive cut in front-line services that will  impact on the current generation of families, parents, grandparents and children for years to come,” she said.

“More children will end up in care if this goes ahead as children’s centres will be off the radar for the families who now access help because they know where to go and because the help is free.

“From being a service for all families, run by qualified staff, communities would have to run their own support groups in village halls, church halls, in people’s homes or as County Hall says, in portable cabins.

“It is unbelievable the council is talking about using portable cabins to deliver services, instead of using purpose-built children’s centres like South Lynn and this represents a massive waste of the public investment that built them.”

The SureStart programme was launched in 1998 with the aim of “giving children the best possible start in life” and to provide support and advice for parents of children aged five and under.

Access to the centres and their services is free but people would mostly have to pay to receive help from the council’s new Early Childhood and Family Service, which would replace them. If the proposals go ahead services would change from October next year.

Miss Kemp, an independent councillor, called on the ruling conservative group at the county council to “think again”.

“This is all to implement the budget cut of £10 million to £5 million in funding for children’s centres, that I voted against in February.

“Valued and experienced staff would inevitably be lost. The council says the new community groups could still use the premises, but this is not realistic as it is unclear who will pay the overheads.

“In South Lynn, the children’s centre was purpose-built as part of the same building as the school and this is the logical place for services, because of safeguarding and accessibility.

“It is owned by the county council, that is, by taxpayers themselves and so this is about accountability too.”

Miss Kemp urged people to use their voice to say ‘no’ by taking part in the council’s online survey.

It is thought the only SureStart centre that will survive the cull would be in Terrington St Clement, which would be a “touch-down space for staff working out in the community” and could host activities.

Penny Carpenter, chairman of the council’s children’s services committee, said: “We want to get the right help to children and families as early as possible and create services that are fit for today’s families.

“By spending our money on frontline services, rather than buildings, we’ll be able to provide more focused one-to-one and group support, with a more consistent service across the county.

“About a quarter of those families who live in areas of greatest need are not accessing children’s centre services at the moment and we want to develop a service that gives them the support and help they need for their children.

“We’ve agreed significant investment over four years to develop new ways of working. This includes a range of projects to help support families to keep their children safe at home.”

The council is holding a public drop-in event at Gaywood library on Thursday, October 25, where people can express their views.

The online consultation is at www.norfolk.gov.uk/childrenscentres and runs until November 9.