Spending on Sure Start centres across England has been slashed by nearly a quarter in four years, figures show, as thousands of vulnerable children and families are left to “fend for themselves”.
A new analysis of government data shows councils spent £480m on children’s centres in 2017-18 – almost 25 per cent less than the £637m spent in 2014-15.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said the cuts to early help services were the result of an increase in spending on children in care, with the number of looked-after children in England at its highest level since the 1980s.
Sure Start centres, introduced in 1998 with the aim of bringing services for young children and their families together “under one roof”, have been described as a “lifeline” for some parents, particularly those living in complex situations.
The spending cut comes as a cross-party group of MPs warned the government had been “painfully slow” to act on failing children’s services, with the delivery date for its programme of reforms for the sector having slipped from 2020 to 2022.
The Public Accounts Committee said the Department for Education had not done enough to make the quality or finances of children’s social care sustainable, with 91 per cent of local authorities having exceeded their budgets for spending on children’s services last year.
The LGA said it was “inevitable” councils would be forced to close more children’s centres unless services, which face a £3.1bn funding gap by 2025, were properly funded in this year’s spending review.
Councillor Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Children’s centres can provide a lifeline for children, parents and carers, offering an incredibly important service in the local community.
“It is inevitable that without new investment from government in children’s services, councils will face the difficult but unavoidable decision of having to cut or close early help services such as children’s centres.
“This is why it is hugely important that the government delivers a long-term sustainable funding solution for children’s services in this year’s spending review.”
Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said the cuts in Sure Start spending painted a “bleak picture of children’s services across the country on their knees, and the government’s continued failure to grasp this very real crisis”.
He added: “Faced with crippling funding cuts, cash-strapped councils are struggling to keep open early help services and are being forced to spend more of their shrinking budgets on crisis services, which means thousands of vulnerable children and families are left to fend for themselves as problems spiral out of control.”
Ministers were last year accused of understating the rate at which Sure Start centres were closing, as research by a team of academics from the University of Oxford showed as many as 1,000 had closed since 2009.
Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi said the government was spending around £3.5bn on its early education entitlements this year and investing £84m over the next five years to support up to 20 local authorities who are seeing high or rising demand for children’s social care to work more effectively with their most vulnerable families.
She added: "We believe it is up to local councils to decide how to organise and commission services in their areas, as they are best-placed to understand local needs."
In response to the PAC report, she said: “Together with local authorities and dedicated social workers, this government is driving up standards in children’s social care. The number of children’s services rated outstanding is rising and the number rated as inadequate has fallen by a third since 2017.
"But, of course, we want to improve services across the board so our £200 million Innovation Programme is backing the sector to put new and even more effective measures in place to help vulnerable families."