Childrens centres could be among first sold off

SUFFOLK: Children’s centres – including one in Ipswich which became a flashpoint during the general election campaign – could be among the first services spun off by the county, it emerged today.

The county council’s full meeting next Thursday is set to approve the implementation of the authority’s “New Strategic Direction” which will see services sold off or handed over to social enterprise bodies.

Among these is children’s centres in Suffolk – including the Treehouse in Clapgate Lane where Ben Gummer confronted Harriet Harman during the election campaign.

Mr Gummer was angry over Labour claims that a Conservative election victory would threaten centres like that.

Subsequently a threat to reduce funding for the centres this year was fought off by Mr Gummer after he was elected to the House of Commons, but now the whole service could be transfered from direct county control to a new organisation.

The council aims to spin off services in three distinct phases over the next two years – and is aiming to start the process by trying to “divest” some services in a pilot programme before phase one starts in April next year.

And some of the county’s most high-profile services could be included in the pilot scheme.

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As well as the children’s centres it is considering spinning off its libraries, highway services, youth clubs, independent living centres, employment enterprises, careers advice service, its country parks and one of the county’s record offices.

Not all these services will be included in the pilot scheme – the county is planning further discussions before it makes a final decision.

And it is implicit in the report that the process could be challenging. It says: “It is the intention that lessons will be learned by going through this process.”

The Evening Star revealed last week that the county council is aiming to spin off as many services as possible to the private sector or social enterprise bodies which are run at arms length from the authority.

This could ultimately leave the council with just a few hundred managers organising contracts with other bodies – although council leader Jeremy Pembroke said he did not expect the fire service would be run in this way.

The time scale for the “divesting” of services which will leave the county as an “enabling authority” is quite rapid.

The full phase one of the programme would run from April until October/November next year.

Phase two would start in the middle of next year and run until May 2012 and phase three would run from late autumn next year until September 2012.

The timetable for the changes was described as “very ambitious” by opposition leader Kathy Pollard from the Liberal Democrats.

She said: “I wish I had more confidence in what they are planning to do, but I’m afraid I don’t.

“They are pressing ahead very fast and are really not consulting anyone about the proposals. I hear concerns from parish councils who are expected to take on a more central role and from staff.

“There are thousands of loyal and committed staff at the authority who have been involved in this process at all and are then just being told their jobs could be at risk. That is not a good way to treat people.”