Sure Start and the big picture: bidding farewell to Children’s Centres in Norfolk

Norfolk County Council passed its budget earlier in the month. Nothing remarkable about that – councils up and down the land have been doing the same. In Norfolk, though, it marked the final act in an intense debate about how the Council supports new families and gives children a fair start in life. It’s a debate that has exposed some of the rawest edges of today’s politics.

Sure Start was a noble idea from the first Blair government: Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto described it as one of the Labour government’s greatest achievements. It aimed to deliver support to children from disadvantaged families by breaking down the barriers they face when accessing services. Children’s Centres were at the heart of the ‘offer’. A network of one-stop shops where families could find a range of support. Support that would ensure children were well looked after, their health needs met and they were equipped to learn and develop as they headed towards their school years. Changes to the funding regime introduced by the Coalition saw funding for Children’s Centres cut by almost £1 billion across that government’s term. The argument in favour of that change was that Children’s Centres are an inefficient way of supporting families that are most in need and that it makes more sense to have a flexible provision that can be better targeted and so deliver good outcomes and better value for money.

In the end, Norfolk County Council voted to close 38 of its 53 Children’s Centres and to halve the budget for the services that had been delivered through them. Time will tell whether I was right in warning that the £1 million cut in funding for front line service delivery is storing up trouble for the future – I sincerely hope I am wrong. What I learned from the months of debate, though, went well beyond the question of how best to deliver early help for families.

First, local government is being driven to breaking point as it tries to balance commitments against funding cuts. This isn’t a case of the pips sqeaking – of special pleading from an insider who is blind to the opportunities to deliver more with less. It’s an informed observer watching a slow-motion car crash. The last Labour government enshrined in law new rights for many of the most vulnerable in society. It was a great way of protecting those who most need the protection of the state: which sane politician would stand on the national stage and argue that such legal protection should be repealed. Except in many cases the obligation to deliver that protection for the vulnerable fell on local government. So Westminster politicians had an escape clause: cut funding for local government (unloved, bureaucratic and fractured, incapable of fixing pot holes, unwilling to empty the bins once a week) but leave the legal obligations in place. I’m not the first to point this out – the Conservative leader of the LGA, Lord Porter, has almost made doom-warning about the funding crisis in Children’s Services and Adult Social Care a full time job. But with Northamptonshire gone and other Councils hovering on the brink, how long will it be before the scale of the problem has to be confronted?

Second, in terms of social policy, increasingly the NHS is the only game in town. As more and more… and more… of our nation’s resources are poured into the Health Service it is creating a kind of public sector black hole effect, sucking in anything orbiting close by. Unelected and unaccountable and dealing in budgets so big they can make their own rules, the NHS commissioners have become the newest ruling Estate. There’s already been much talk of the need to integrate health and social care (but rather less of whether this means effectively nationalising social care). Integrated commissioning has seen NHS decision makers gaining ever more influence over resources spent on a wide range of services. And desperate local authorities are seeking out cost-shifting measures that will allow them to claim credit for delivering services while getting the NHS to carry a chunk of the cost. The cornerstone of the Sure Start programme was ‘school readiness’; the starting point for Norfolk’s new Early Family Help service will be good health, and midwives and health visitors will doubtless be at the centre of service delivery.

Finally, it seems, we have all had enough of experts. I sought in vain for concrete evidence that Children’s Centres were the best way to deliver support to new families. The Labour Party whisked up the red flag and whipped up the crowd. At various times during the long debate I demanded to know what we were trying to achieve with the new service. I warned against a sham consultation that hid the Council’s plans from public view. I warned that you couldn’t rely on the voluntary sector to deliver safe, high quality and sustainable services unless they were properly paid for what they did. I warned that the Council could be landed with a £16 million bill from the government in clawback payments if the centres were closed. I highlighted the damage that could be done by a £1 million cut in front line funding. Labour, throughout, demanded that the closure of the Children’s Centres be stopped. Nothing more complicated than that. And the ruling Conservatives had to do little more than repeat the mantra that they wanted to spend money on services not buildings. Ultimately, though, Labour councillors knew exactly what I knew: it was pretty much impossible to find £5 million to put back into the service in order to keep all the centres open. And so, when the budget debate came round this month of course they quietly dropped the fight and and moved on to the next target. We live in a populist age.

It’s hard to find a hero in this story. It seems to me to illustrate in a small way the huge challenge at the heart of modern politics: how to fix complex problems in an accountable way with an increasingly broken system. My only hope is that once we get past the all-consuming Brexit mess, attention will have to turn to how we make politics work better. Maybe what we need is a Sure Start scheme for politicians.

Ed Maxfield was elected as a Liberal Democrat County Councillor in 2017, and is a member of Norfolk’s Children’s Services Committee.

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  • John Marriott 28th Feb '19 - 4:25pm

    As someone who spent thirty years as a councillor in local government and the last 16 as a county councillor I have much sympathy with Cllr Maxfield. His views typify experiences we all have shared, particularly since 2010 but, in fact, for many years before. LDV readers are probably sick to the teeth with my banging on about in previous threads about how Local Government has been used by central governments of all colours as a kind of human shield against public anger at cuts in services, a gradual emasculation that one could argue dates back many, many decades.

    Having said that, I do not for one moment believe that local government has been entirely without fault. One could point to the reluctance to reform and to streamline its structures, particularly in England. Also, there are examples of where good ideas, which probably first saw the light of day at Westminster, have been either mishandled, misused or just not properly though out. Universal Credit is one whose reputation has been largely trashed by the way it was implemented. Sure Start, which Ed mentions, was a good idea, designed to give the most underprivileged youngsters a boost, which some argue was, especially in rural areas, largely hijacked by the middle classes.

    I do not want to encourage any of our LDV experts to launch into another treatise on the wonders of LVT; but clearly, unless we find a fairer more equitable way of paying for services and indeed reach a consensus on which services a local council should be expected to provide we shall continue to go round in circles.

    However, whatever locally generated funding system you come up with, there will still be areas like Norfolk or my own Lincolnshire, where a ‘top up’ will be required from central funds. There’s no problem in areas like Kensington and Chelsea, for example, where by any yardstick, whether income or property, there is potentially plenty of cash to move around.

    Ed is right about how Brexit is crowding out every other consideration. One day, I sincerely hope, we shall exit this nightmare, probably the poorer in economic terms whatever the result, and then we really will have to make some tough decisions about what local government, let alone national government, can actually deliver.

  • David Evans 28th Feb '19 - 5:28pm

    Ed, It’s easy to find a hero in this. It is any and every one of those Lib Dem councillors who fight to enable their council to make decisions based on an objective assessment of what is going on rather than populist rabble rousing and party political gain.

    It is people like you.

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