Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

In recent years, libraries and children’s centres have been two of the most emotive services threatened by ‘austerity’.

Six years ago, Suffolk County Council retained all its 47 libraries, following an extensive review, involving a detailed analysis of each property: freehold or leasehold, their condition, accessibility and running costs, as well as how each library was managed and used. In some areas, they were well supported, with enthusiastic staff and volunteers organising a range of activities, from coffee mornings and book clubs, to homework sessions for children of all ages – a safe place with light refreshments and help with learning, until their parents finished work.

In others, staff did virtually nothing to encourage or promote activities, left to their own devices without a local strategy to attract visitors. Public meetings across the county provided a detailed assessment of what communities actually wanted, how passionate they were about the value of their libraries, and how they should adapt. Unfortunately, there was resistance to proposals to relocate a couple to higher profile shared sites, or to use them to promote Tourism.

The extensive consultation led to the transferring all 47 libraries into a social enterprise, run by and for those communities; it also meant £3 million annual savings on the Council’s funding grant, when it was evident that libraries carried central management costs which bore no relation to the services provided.

An important lesson learnt was the potential for joining things up – something the public sector isn’t very good at.

Now the County is turning its attention to Children’s Centres with a public consultation to update the service to meet changing need, with a focus on sharing buildings and working with other organisations to maximise benefits.

Announcing the review, the Council stated:

“It is vitally important that we continue to make a real and positive difference for children, young people and families throughout Suffolk and ensure we make the best use of the public money we are given to provide public services.

“Given the range of social and cultural changes we all continue to experience through the greater use of technology, the way our communities continue to develop and the way in which we choose to access services for our families, now is the right time to review the services we provide for young people aged 0 to 19 years old.”

The challenges include ensuring that there are sufficient nursery places for all eligible two and three year olds, when many areas do not have enough places, making it difficult for working parents. The council recognises that “good early education has a positive impact on preparing children for school and their long term future.”

The review identified:

  • 776 providers offer 20,095 Ofsted registered places;
  • 72 per cent of two-year-olds and 94 per cent of three to four-year-olds take up their funded places;
  • A deficit of 3,332 ’15 hour’ places currently;
  • 60,000 new homes to be built in Suffolk over the next 20 years will create an extra 10,300 ‘15 hour’ places.

Over five months, the review analysed current provision, and their accessibility (especially in rural areas) covering 12 libraries, schools, churches, and health/community centres across 38 sites. It emerged that some sites were used more frequently, and that there was duplication of provision, with other organisations offering the same services.

A user survey identified changing need, areas of deprivation, and the cost of making Children’s Services more flexible and sustainable – with the aim of reinvesting any savings to strengthen family focus, with parenting advice. Parents want more information out of hours, available on their mobile phones.

As a result, the Council is now consulting on its plans to create one family hub in each area, offering a range of services for all children up to 19, and carers working with other organisations including mental health, employment for young people, as well as communication and language support.

Key changes:

  • Develop 16 full time and 11 part-time family hubs;
  • Repurpose nine sites for nursery provision;
  • Increase outreach services;
  • Close two buildings which cannot be repurposed due to unsuitability;
  • Retain and improve services through libraries.

Cllr. Mary Evans, SCC Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Education and Skills, said:

“To prepare for this consultation, we have taken a rigorous approach to review current services through surveys at each Children’s Centre and research into what is happening across the county.

“The feedback kindly provided by families who currently use the Centres and the range of outreach services we already provide in community buildings, has informed the development of this proposal and we hope you can share your views and ideas with us now as we look to develop these services to meet future demands.”

With elections in 2021, the review is timely, inviting further input from across Suffolk, ensuring future delivery matches demand. The consultation closes on 1st March 2020.