We have an Alice-in-Wonderland situation here at County Hall: Norfolk County Council’s £19 million shortfall, caused by the Norwich Distributor Road (NDR) overspend, can be found at the drop of a hat, but not £5 million to save children’s centres for the whole of Norfolk.
The county will borrow more money for the road, and the debt will be serviced out of income that would have been spent on services.
I spoke against the budget proposal to cut children’s centres funding by half – £10 million to £5 million – but the Conservatives in power say there is no money to save children’s centres and that cutting half the budget will deliver a better service.
There is no way that cutting the service’s funding by half will make it better. Cuts to the speech therapy service already mean county is asking children aged five to pay for their own therapy. Parents can’t afford it, so children face long waiting lists, affecting their education and future achievement, at the time when learning to communicate is most important. It is happening in my division and it is a scandal.
The children’s centres cuts, if we don’t get them stopped at the county budget in February, will means test children and families for all the vital services that prepare children for school, help families stay together, support parents to find work, provide venues for developmental checks for children and access to health services, and keep children out of care.
Children’s centres are a whole-community vision, a safe and trusted place to go to access help and they need to stay so. Children’s centres also help mothers with post-natal depression, parents in abusive relationships, and parents new to the area. Means test the service and needs will go unmet, just as speech therapy does now.
St Michael’s Children’s Centre helps South and West Lynn, but also runs the baby weighing clinic in West Winch; St Clement’s Children’s Centre in Terrington also helps parents in the village of Clenchwarton. There is much need in villages, as well as in wards like South Lynn, which is in the 5 per cent of most deprived wards in England.
But Norfolk County Council is now so busy building major roads, which is really the Government’s job, that it has lost its commitment to core services and has got its priorities wrong.
Buses, the gritting of the roads, mobile libraries, hedge-cutting and children’s centres all face the squeeze. Building arterial roads is the Government’s business, not the county council’s, as Whitehall has greater expertise and greater clout with large contractors. So let the Government come up with the shortfall.
There are Government cuts of £125 million to the county council, but within that there are choices to be made. Borrowing for roads should not be one of them. Certainly not when county wants to budget for an extra half-a-million pounds for the NDR that is not yet needed, when it is prepared to cut half-a-million pounds from funding buses, a substantial part of the whole buses budget.
As Government made £3 billion available for “Brexit preparations” in the Chancellor’s Budget, it should now reverse its cuts to Norfolk County Council so we can fund services properly, or at least fund the shortfall to the NDR and take over and fund the project to its conclusion. People voted for Brexit expecting there to be more money for services, but at this rate, by the time we leave the EU, key public services like children’s centres will be already be a mere shadow of their former selves.
What is important to you? Please have your say before the Budget Consultation closes on January 2. If you do not have access to a computer, you can request a paper copy of the consultation by calling 0844 800 802. Send your written comments to -: Freepost Plus RTCL-XSTT-JZSK, Norfolk County Council, Ground Floor South Wing, County Hall, Martineau Lane, Norwich NR1 2DH. If you have a computer, you can read the Budget proposals at www.norfolk.gov.uk/budget and email your responses to HaveYourSay@norfolk.gov.uk
Lives depend on it.