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County council hit by legal challenge to children’s centres closure plans

Buckinghamshire County Council is facing a High Court challenge over its decision to close more than half of its children’s centres.

The local authority decided in March this year to close 19 of the 35 centres it operates across the county. The remaining centres will be restructured into ‘Family Centres’ offering a different model of provision. The plans are due to come into effect in September this year.

The claimant is a 32-year-old woman, who attends Millbrook Children’s Centre in High Wycombe almost every day with her son.

Irwin Mitchell, which is advising her on the claim, argues that Buckinghamshire’s plan could amount to a breach of the Childcare Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2010. It claims that:

  1. The consultation process was ultimately unfair “with some public statements even suggesting the matter was pre-determined”;
  2. The decision amounted to a breach of the duty to ensure there are sufficient child care services across Buckinghamshire;
  3. There was a failure to consider statutory guidance from the Department for Education on children’s centres which sets out the presumption that centres should not be closed.

The law firm said a hearing is to take place on 13 June, at which the court will be asked to make an order preventing the council from taking any further steps to implement the closures.

James Betts, a solicitor at Irwin Mitchell who is representing the family, said: “Children’s centres provide vital support to families in a range of situations and our client and her son have benefitted greatly from the access to the services at Millbrook.

“However, the planned closure of the site and the wider proposals to completely reshape services across the county will make it much harder for families with young children in the area to get the support they need.”

Betts added: “They and many other families have found the current situation hugely distressing and we believe the council should have done more when considering this issue. We are now determined to ensure that our client gets their voice heard on this emotive matter.”

Warren Whyte, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services at Buckinghamshire, said: “We are aware of legal proceedings relating to our plans to make changes to Children’s Centre services in Buckinghamshire. These proceedings focus on those early help services offered at the centres.

“We must ensure our early help offer supports the right families at the right time so that their needs do not escalate and they are given the support they require when they need it.

“It is vital that our new Family Support Service launches on 2 September, as planned. Any delay to this will impede our ability to help the very people who need it most, and will have a serious financial impact on the service.

Cllr Whyte added: “The changes to services form part of a Partnership Early Help Strategy created after an extensive 10-week public consultation. Two thirds of respondents said we should proceed with this new strategy, which puts the needs of local children and families at its heart.

“Our strategy is not about buildings – it is about people. While 16 existing children’s centres will expand their offer, as new Family Centres, plans are being finalised to enable other existing children’s centre sites to be used by families in their community.

“We are unable to comment further on the legal proceedings at this time.”

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