Three months on from the Spending Review, when the Chancellor pledged to protect Sure Start children centres (and one month since FactCheck last looked at Sure Start) – charities are warning that 250 such centres could be shut.
Councils are bashing out their final budgets as we speak – but few are willing to commit themselves to keeping the centres open.
At the very least, most Sure Start centres will be streamlined, many councils have told FactCheck.
While the government hasn’t cut the £1.1bn it has allocated to councils for Sure Start, it has removed the ring fencing that previously protected that budget.
What Mr Osborne has done, is thrown the £1.1bn Sure Start funding in with the Early Intervention Grant (EIG’s) funding of £2.5bn – and cut the whole pot by 11 per cent to £2.2bn.
So the Sure Start centres aren’t safe – councils might choose to spend the new ‘Sure Start & EIG pot’ in other areas, on schemes for teenage pregnancy or disabled children for example.
And cutting Sure Start funding could affect the centres very differently.
Because, as the charity 4Children told FactCheck, it’s virtually impossible to gauge how much councils would save per Sure Start closure – as the centres vary in size and services so much.
Take Norfolk. It said yesterday it’s running a consultation on the future of its 54 centres and is looking to “merge management and administration at several centres” in order to drive down costs and protect services.
A spokeswoman for Sure Start in Norfolk told FactCheck that the centres range from costing around as much as £435,000 a year in a disadvantaged area, to around £250,000 in the more mixed economies of market towns. Centres in the more upmarket areas tend to be run on around £100,000 a year.
But the size of these centres also range dramatically. Some smaller, rural centres care for just 300 or 400 children. Bigger ones can take up to 1,500 children.
Norfolk plans to keep all its Sure Start buildings open, but instead pool the management – which will mean job losses, but should preserve front line services.
With councils remaining tight lipped on cuts, 4Children turned to the centre managers themselves for clues – and most have been told to expect less money.
A national survey of 3,500 centre managers found that 250 centres – or 7 per cent – will close or are expected to close.
Meanwhile around 2,000, or 56 per cent, will be forced to provide a reduced service. And 3,100 centres – a huge 86 per cent – will suffer from a smaller budget.
In the run-up to the election, Labour claimed that the Conservatives were planning to cut £200m a year from the Sure Start budget. This, Labour claimed, would see the closure of one in five Sure Start centres.
While Mr Osborne hasn’t cut Sure Start funding, by not ring fencing the money, he can’t protect the programme – all he’s done is hand the axe down to the councils. The Conservatives maintained they were committed to keeping, and indeed improving, Sure Start.
All this leaves us wondering why Mr Osborne chose to make a promise in October that he just can’t keep.