FURIOUS parents and staff belonging to Unison public sector union have forced Crawley Borough Council (CBC) to issue letters to parents to deny it plans to close two vital after-school clubs and two play centres in April, but is looking to privatise them instead.
Parents only learnt of the Tory-led council’s closure plans when they were revealed in The Observer local newspaper several weeks ago, sparking enormous fury and disgust.
Many parents told the paper how changes to the services will drastically affect their lives.
Single mum Kelly Bucknall, whose nine and eight-year-old children use Pound Hill after-school club, said the service enables her to work.
‘I am really annoyed the council are trying to close Kids Corner,’ Kelly fumed.
‘The government are pushing us all to go back to work but then they cut affordable childcare.
‘I will end up giving up work because there is nowhere else local for them to go.’
Mum Lesley Webb said: ‘I would have to drop the equivalent of one day a week at work if the club closes.
‘The options for me are to work another day a week, which I don’t really want to do, or lose a day’s pay so there is little choice.
‘There has not been any consultation, it is non-existent.’
Lesley’s husband Steven, a traindriver, wrote to the paper: ‘At a time when the government are trying to get single parents off benefit and back to work we have the council proposing to close the very lifeline these parents and others need to get back to work.
‘I work odd shifts and my wife also works. The very fact that this centre picks up the children from Pound Hill school and supervises them until 6pm enables my wife to continue.’
Steve says that his daughter loves Kids Corner and would be ‘devastated if it closes’.
Many readers praised the centres and especially ‘the hard-working staff’.
Another Pound Hill user, Zena Kiero-Watson, said: ‘It is absolutely disgusting. They could have given us six months notice, but this was nothing.’
However, in a letter from Director of Community Services Phil Rogers, parents were right to be alarmed as he admits: ‘The option for closing these facilities was included in the Strategic Plan adopted by the Council in December 2007.’
The anger and outrage expressed by parents has forced the council to reveal its plan to ‘outsource’ the play services, only weeks after it voted to scrap its Direct Labour Service in favour of private contractors.
‘I would like to know a bit more about who these external partners are and how much it will cost,’ said Zena.
CBC communications officer Janet Treagus insisted last Friday to News Line that the West Sussex council had ‘no firm proposals’ to close the centres.
‘We are only at the beginning of a programme of negotiations with staff,’ Treagus said.
But she made it clear the council’s intention to get shot of the supervised play centres when she added: ‘It is a service which is not economical and not our duty to provide.’
Rogers alleges the cost of maintaining the play services ‘has grown to more than £1 million per year’, a figure parents will say is good value if indeed it is correct.
CBC has recently been censured by the Audit Commission and the Advertising Standards Authority for misleading the public when it tried to privatise its council house stock.
Then it claimed it had to ‘transfer’ (privatise) the houses because of a £60 million ‘black hole’ which CBC adjusted to £2.7 million after the watchdogs were called in by residents who stopped the sell-off.
Once again, the council is proclaiming that the play services are ‘uneconomical’.
In the case of the supervised play schemes Rogers says that it is a provision ‘schools and voluntary organisations. . . could do equally well while benefiting from the government funds which are not available to Crawley Council’.
Rogers continues: ‘In order to ensure our services remain affordable for future generations, we need to make choices about the range of services to be offered.
‘Consultations with staff commenced in January and negotiations with organisations that may be willing to provide an alternative service have been taking place.’
‘I am sure that you will understand the importance of completing these discussions before we consult with service users.’
However, in the next paragraph Rogers says that a report to have been considered in either February/March ‘has now been delayed to provide sufficient time to consult more widely with parents. . .’
Treagus confirmed that the report was likely to emerge in June but couldn’t confirm in what form parents would be consulted.
Crawley Unison confirmed that it held a meeting with staff last Thursday morning to discuss the council’s proposals.
Meanwhile, the national union says the UNISON Positively Public campaign is ‘for quality in our public services, and for recognition of the essential role of public service workers in achieving this’.
Nationally, UNISON has pursued a twin track approach to public service campaigning that opposes the privatisation and marketisation of public services in principle ‘but also recognises that where reforms are going ahead, UNISON must get the best protections for our members’.
UNISON adds: ‘Positively Public challenges the drive to privatise and marketise public services and is currently campaigning across a range of issues and services.
‘All our evidence and experience shows that once services are run for private profit, the quality of care and service is reduced and the public service ethos is replaced by a hard-nosed profit motive.’
UNISON warns: ‘The community and voluntary sector or “the third sector” is being encouraged by the government to compete with other organisations for public service work.
‘This drive for organisations to compete with each other on costs is undermining the quality of service provision and is likely to lead to more fragmentation of services and ultimately the outsourcing or privatisation of services.
‘UNISON is concerned that the marketisation of third sector will lead to a loss of independence of charitable organisations and undermine their principles.’