A controversial decision on the future of two council-run nurseries in Bexhill has been met with anger from residents and Rother councillors this week.
On Monday (October 7), East Sussex County Council’s lead member for children and families Sylvia Tidy approved a raft of measures intended to cut £2.6m from the authority’s early help budget.
As part of these plans, the council will cease its funding of the Cygnets and Rainbow child care centres – the only county council-run nurseries in East Sussex.
According to the council the move comes as part of a wider change to early help services, intended to “focus limited resources on services rather than buildings.”
In a statement issued after the meeting, Cllr Tidy said: “With reductions in central government funding, an increase in the number of families and young people needing support and increasing costs, we need to make sure we use our increasingly limited resources where they can have the greatest impact.
“Our keyworkers work with some of the most vulnerable families and young people in the county to overcome issues they face and prevent the need for intervention from our social workers. The revised strategy will ensure this work in safeguarded.
“And although we will be operating from fewer buildings, we are confident that we will be able to prioritise our £4.4 million budget to deliver the right support to the vulnerable families and young people who need it.”
As part of its decision, the council has promised to work with other providers to secure sufficient nursery places in Bexhill “so far as is reasonably practicable.” This could see the nurseries taken over by a private provider, councillors heard.
The council has also promised – following angry responses from residents in the public consultation – not to close the nurseries before September 2020, ensuring families can enrol their child for a full school year if needed.
The decision drew criticism from a number of Rother councillors present at the meeting, including Liberal Democrat county and district councillor Kathryn Field.
Cllr Field said: “We have heard that nurseries, particularly in vulnerable areas, are an essential thing for those young people and their families.
“For a start it enables parents and carers to go out and work, which I think is the aim of a great many of us who work in the area of social care.
“I am very worried about the long term future of these young people if they lose this service.
“Unfortunately what they are losing are the soft things we can’t measure. We can’t measure the effect it is having on them and we can’t necessarily make a direct link with costs we might incur further down the line when these people suffer from not having provision in the early stages.”
Meanwhile, Conservative county councillor for Bexhill North Michael Ensor called on Cllr Tidy to commit the council to continue running one of the nurseries should finding alternative providers prove impossible.
He said: “[The report] does actually say the process may include sub-letting spaces and it may be necessary to review the closure of the nurseries if it is not possible to find [alternative providers].
“Are you able to modify [the decision] to guarantee that there will be a nursery retained at the end of this process. It is the vagueness that is the worry.”
Officers, however, said the council could not offer this guarantee, but would revisit the issue should no alternative provision be found.
Criticisms were also levelled by Independent Charles Clark, who also serves as both a county councillor and a Rother district councillor.
Cllr Clark said: “Wards of high deprivation and poverty should be protected and invested in, not drive deeper into poverty [by] reducing the employment prospects of young families whose lives are already very difficult.”
Similar criticisms were raised after the meeting by several other Rother councillors, including Independent councillor Jay Brewerton and Labour councillor Sam Coleman.
Cllr Coleman said: “This decision by East Sussex County Council is legally questionable, ethically untenable and morally bankrupt in every regard.
“To sell off the only two council-run nurseries at the risk of closure in a time like this is shameful.
“It would be remiss of me not to point out the sheer hypocrisy of the Conservative-led council saying that they cannot fund these essential services because of national cuts, while the Conservative government tells us ‘austerity is over’ and that they are providing more funding for early years services.
“To my residents in Sidley, I say this: I will continue to fight this at every stage. I will not give up and neither will the rest of the Rother Alliance councillors.
“The county council must be held to account, they must not be allowed to ignore the serious impacts of their decisions.”
The decision was met with cries of anger from the public gallery on Monday, including from parent and campaigner Nikki Collins.
Speaking after the meeting, Ms Collins said: “I am devastated that we are in this situation.
“The future of Cygnets and Rainbow should never have been included in this consultation.
“The fact they are the last two County-run nurseries in the area means they are an asset, not something to dispose of.
“The fact that they are willing to let them go, without even taking it to a full council meeting, just goes to show that our youngest generation and the parents supporting them are their lowest priority.”