Mark Higton: Labour’s threat to youth provision in H&F

A guest post from Mark Higton, a Conservative candidate for Ravenscourt Park Ward.

I am deeply concerned about how the Labour Council are privatising Youth and Family Services. These changes will happen if they are left unchecked, and the reason voters are unaware is because the Labour councillors involved have failed to publish definitive policy documents, which makes scrutinising and discussing these plans extremely difficult.

The first we learned of this was 18 months ago, when Community Centres and Youth Charities were informed that two of the five Youth Hubs could be cut, whilst the remaining three would be ‘re-imagined’ to become Super-Hubs. The decision was only to be made after May 2018. Hubs were told only to apply if they were located next to a School and Health Centre. They were also informed that they could lose their facility funding should a change in their designation occur, whilst Children’s Centres could be cut as part of the wider rationalisation.

Naturally the Children’s Centres, and the many Youth Charities that support them, were alarmed by this information. To this end a group of Charities established the Young Hammersmith & Fulham Foundation to exchange information, and provide an independent voice. I have been speaking with their members, and aligned voluntary groups, and they are clear that the privatisation of Family and Youth Services has already commenced in Hammersmith and Fulham, resulting in cuts to budgets, annual funding reviews, and delays in funding decisions.

The EdCity project in White City is a clear example of the Council’s vision for a Super-Hub, and it is already impacting how Charities will be commissioned in Ravenscourt Park and other Wards. The Council decided to dispense with the existing Community Centres and Charities which have decades of youth provision experience in Hammersmith, and gave the mandate to a private-public partnership called OnSide. As part of this deal the Council have pledged to provide 50 per cent of the funding required to build a Youth Zone costing £6 million. This will be owned by Onside, and local charities and community groups will have to pay commercial rates if they want to use the building.

Furthermore the Council has pledged 40 per cent of Onside’s annual £1,000,000.00 operating budget, the remaining 60 per cent will be generated via Sponsorship and User Charges. Onside estimate the cost of delivery per child to be approximately £17.90 per head, which is almost £4.00 more than what our existing youth charities charge, whilst user charges will mean that a Child who currently attends the Youth Club for free will have to pay between £7.00 and 50p per session.

So why are Labour Councillors backing a partnership which is noncompetitive to our local Charities, and will cost the poorest in society up to £547.50 a year to access? The answer is simple, the Council want to make long-term savings of £9.00 per child, cutting their costs from £14.00 to £5.00 per head. That, of course, is the theory…

What if OnSide fail to meet their share of the operational costs? Presumably the Council will be forced to underwrite the scheme, and a building nobody else can use, whilst the community will still have to pay for services at point of provision. More to the point, least well-off parents that can’t afford the user charges could find that their taxes are being used to subsidise better-off parents, who might otherwise have paid more.

If that isn’t enough to worry about, the Council plan to move Youth and Family Services into a Purpose Led Vehicle, where 75 per cent of costs will be met by the private sector in five years. This shift, and a reduction in staff, will coincide with Super-Hubs being given greater responsibility to directly commission Children’s Centres, Community Organisations, and Youth Charities. The loss of accountability to the Council should this vision be fully implemented could be disastrous.

Conservatives believe this money could be better spent. £3 million would fund our existing Hubs for two and a quarter years, or provide much needed investment into their facilities and the Children’s Centres they support. Whilst the £400,000 annual operating capital is equivalent to the entire H&F Youth Services budget!

A budget the Council has claimed time, and time again, it has to cut.

Surely it would be simpler to increase the youth budget, and directly support experienced providers like the Sulgrave Club and Harrow Club?

Members of the the Young Hammersmith & Fulham Foundation say we are talking sense, they believe the corporate model which the Labour Council backs is anti-competitive, not fit for purpose, and doesn’t provide taxpayers with value for money.

Save the Ravenscourt Park Pre-School

The Ravenscourt Park Pre-School, on the Ravenscourt Road side of the Park, has been running for decades as a not-for-profit resource in a community managed by the Pre-School Learning Alliance – a large educational charity and main voluntary sector provider of quality affordable childcare and education in England. The pre-school provides good quality care and education to 2-5 year olds – there is a social mix but it is particularly appreciated by those who can not afford the expensive private nursery schools available locally.

The building has hosted a popular one o’clock club for decades, a fathers club and many other local, community and family services over the years.  

In June 2017, all parents of children at the pre-school were informed that the Pre-School Learning Alliance was planning to close the setting in a matter of weeks due to an unsustainable financial performance. They were very unwilling to see this happen as a significant number of families rely on the school as one of the few genuinely affordable pre-schools in the area. Furthermore they  had first-hand experience of the quality of care our children received there and wanted to preserve its nurturing and caring ethos for children to come.

Helen Galvin has been instrumental in this initiative and a trustee of the new charity along with Kate Walters and Lorraine Hamid.

Helen tells me:

“It struck us as relatively unsurprising that the setting was not maximising its income. Although its fees are low, it would operate in a financially sustainable fashion if efforts had been made to ensure it was near capacity (i.e. if almost all 20 places were filled with children). However, although this was the case in the past, a lack of marketing meant that there were improvements to be made. We spoke at length to another nursery in the area which is run by a parent trustee body and were reassured by its business model that it would be possible to run the nursery in a sustainable fashion without raising fees. We also looked into the possibility of applying for grants and other funding, which was very encouraging, and spoke about other revenue raising measures.

Three parents came together immediately to start planning what could be done to save the school. Our initial concern was for members of the community who could not afford the much higher prices of many neighbouring nurseries. After much negotiation, we came to an agreement with the Pre-School Learning Alliance to take over the running of the pre-school as a parent trustee body.

We have set up a new registered charity (you can find us on the charity commission website here) and began the process to register the pre-school with Ofsted as a ‘new’ school under new management. During this time we were encouraged by the commitment and enthusiasm of the three wonderful full-time staff, all of whom have been working with pre-schoolers in Hammersmith for decades. They were devastated at the thought of the school’s closure and wanted to do everything possible to prevent it.  

It is also worth noting that during and since this summer, where the future of the pre-school was in real peril, we have been supported by our wonderful community and, specifically, parents whose children attended the pre-school (sometimes many years ago) and who still felt strong ties to the school and its staff. We have spoken to many people in the community who have helped with fundraising and spreading the word, which included gaining local press coverage. We have benefitted from the advice and expertise of those who appreciate the importance of the setting and want to put something back into the community.

However, it has become clear from the start that the challenges ahead of us were significant and pressing, and they remain so today. Meeting these challenges is absolutely the difference between keeping the school open (and being able to grow and improve it) and having to let it close, to the real detriment of the community. We urgently need to secure the lease of the building to secure funding for the school and complete our registration with Ofsted.

We have identified numerous ways the setting could be better managed and start running in a financially sustainable fashion. But to get to this point needs investment and support from members of our community who appreciate the importance of accessible and affordable, nurturing and dedicated care for 2-5 year olds regardless of the families’ economic status. We have created strategic development and marketing plans to put in place once we have security regarding the pre-school’s future.

We have many exciting plans for the school, building on its strengths and focusing on its ties with the community, e.g. the Pre-school children joined the Christmas celebrations at Park lane resident centre last month and bonded with residents over Christmas crackers and raffle prizes. The meeting of the younger and older generations was a highly enjoyable and successful afternoon for all involved. We are planning further joint initiatives throughout the year. (Please see attached pictures of the Christmas party) 

The pre- school has always enjoyed a good relationship with the Ravenscourt Park Glasshouses and children are encouraged to participate in fruit, vegetable and flower growing. The Pre-school fully utilises its position in the park to appreciate nature.

Ravenscourt Park Pre-school has also developed links with the surrounding primary and prep schools and indeed the local and wider community. Up until recently, a member of Queens Park Rangers football club volunteered his time to train the children every Friday morning at the school.

Our ultimate aim is to make the pre-school a real hub for the community, with an offering over and above its excellent early years care. 

We have run a successful crowdfunding campaign, and are planning our next fundraising appeal. At the moment we are over halfway through the Ofsted registration process, and Ofsted are planning to come to visit the setting in the next few weeks. 

We are doing this will continue to run the pre-school for no financial gain. It is against our constitution to be recompensed for our work on this project. The key here is that the school must stay not-for-profit (i.e. any profits go back into the setting) and affordable. We have been in close contact with the Council’s early years department who have been supportive and helpful. The nursery will continue to offer Early Years Funding (i.e. to eligible 2 year olds, to all 3 and 4 year olds up to 15 hours, and an additional 15 hours to eligible 3 and 4 year olds). As we understand the situation, this is important for our borough as not all nurseries are willing or can afford to offer these places (especially on the flexible basis that we can offer). Being able to support families in the area in this way is therefore a key objective for us.

In order to be able to save this pre-school for the community, we need to have security in the building. The building itself is in need of repair and improvements, and we’d like to be able to make this happen – to this end we’ve been working with organisations such as Groundworks who will be able to help us raise funds to develop the (inside and outside) space making it more attractive to children and the parents, and an even better environment to educate and care for 2-5 year olds. we would like  to continue providing this important service would be, we feel, very much worth doing. 

The pre-school has an incredible amount of potential in its offering both to the area’s children and to the community as a whole.

To fulfil this potential we will build on the school’s values which revolve around providing a home from home, educational excellence, and an awareness of, and appreciation for, the importance of nature and the environment. 

To this end, our ambitions involve creating an outdoor learning environment which will encourage free play outside and will include a space for the children to grow their own plants and vegetables. This will be linked to learning about conservation, healthy eating and sustainability.

We are committed to strengthening the school’s links with our local community, especially through parental involvement in lessons (e.g. music and cooking) and in the very running of the school. We will also increase our partnerships with local organisations (e.g. retirement homes, charities, other schools in the area) to ensure connections with members of the local community. Ultimately the school will be an uplifting space to bring people together in a beautiful park setting.

We are excited about the potential of an internal renovation, which would include adding more opportunities to let in light and open up views of the park and garden. Such an improvement will allow us to let the building to be used by different groups and individuals (e.g. parent coaching groups, children’s clubs etc.) and the space will be re-zoned for the benefit of our children.

Our ambitions are big but realistic, and would ultimately mean the pre-school is a thriving and vibrant centre of the community.”

Before Christmas the school visited the Park Court sheltered housing block for a party with elderly residents – see picture below.

The bureaucratic delays in sorting out the lease are a typical example of a lack of “joined up Government”. I am pressing for the matter to be resolved as soon as possible so that the pre-school future can be secured. The best is yet to come!

More dishonesty from Slaughter – this time on children’s centres

In the House of Commons this month the Labour MP for Hammersmith Andrew Slaughter announced that as a result of the new administration on Hammersmith and Fulham Council “nine children’s centres have been saved from planned closure.”

As a result I emailed Andrew Christie, the Director of Children’s Services to ask: “If this is correct please advise which children’s centres were due to close and where this supposed plan was outlined.”

I have now had the following reply:

Dear Councillor Phibbs,
Thank you for your email to Andrew Christie, regarding an announcement by Andrew Slaughter MP in the House of Commons that nine children’s centres had been saved from planned closure.

It may help to note at Hammersmith and Fulham Cabinet in October 2014, a decision was taken to extend the current arrangements for Children’s Centre delivery, initially for a six month period up until 30 September 2015. This provision was extended for a further six months until March 2016 if required. Following this decision a press release was issued.  I have enclosed a copy for ease of reference. The press release included reference to cuts in central funding having led to some concerns about potential reduction in services for Children’s Centres.  As far as officers are aware this is the only information that was circulated post the Cabinet decision.

Officers are currently working with Children’s Centres to maximise the offer available for children and families at their sites,  including where possible progressing the option to offer targeted two year old early places onsite and working with health colleagues to ensure a integrated health offer is part of the local offer.

I do hope that you find the above helpful.

Rachael Wright-Turner
Director of Commissioning
Children’s Services

The press release is here.

So in other words there were no plans – from Council officers or the previous Conservative administration or anyone else – to close any children’s centres in our borough. Let alone to close nine. The Labour council has renewed the contracts and continued the same policy. That is sensible of them. But they really should put up or shut up with their allegations about a secret closure plan.

Mr Slaughter has form on this. In 2011 he said nine children’s centres were about to close.

This week the Health Minister Jane Ellison said:

“I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has a dismal track record of campaigning on this issue. We have all seen the leaflets being put out in west London. I can only say to his constituents that in the run-up to the election they would glean more from reading their tea leaves than from reading his leaflets if they want to know the truth about the NHS in west London.”

The same applies to children’s centres.

Piers Player: The extraordinary history of the Brunswick club

A guest post from Piers Player, Senior Youth and Development Worker of  the Brunswick Club

BrunswickDouble_tcm21-123239The Brunswick Boys’ Club Trust was established by a Declaration of Trust on 26 February 1945 by British officers held as prisoners of war in Oflag 79, a WWII prisoner of war camp on the outskirts of Brunswick in Germany.

As the war approached its end the prisoners of Oflag 79 conceived the idea that they should form a Club for “the boys who will be the Men of Tomorrow and who need opportunities to develop their potential. Let this Boys Club be a memorial to the comradeship we have shared in our captivity and let it be a living memorial to those of our friends who have fallen”.

In 1947, using the money pledged by the prisoners of war in Oflag 79 and money raised in subsequent fund-raising campaigns, the Brunswick Boys Club Trust purchased a site in the centre of Fulham – “a somewhat depressed area that had suffered substantial damage during the Blitz.”

The original object of the Trust was to “promote the bodily, mental and spiritual welfare of boys in the United Kingdom under the age of twenty-one.” On 14 May 1997 the Trust changed its name to The Brunswick Club Trust and the object was amended to “promote the development of boys and young men and girls and young women in achieving their full physical, intellectual, social and spiritual potential.”

brunswick13_tcm21-133094Initially consisting of two Nissen huts, The Brunswick Boys Club (as it was then called) has since been renamed The Brunswick Club for Young People and is now a purpose built youth centre offering a range of excellent facilities and services for the young people of Hammersmith & Fulham.

Currently it provides:

  • a three day a week Senior Youth Club for young people in school years 7 and above;
  • a two day a week Junior Youth Club in school years 2-6;
  • a weekly girls group for 11 to 16 year olds;
  • a weekly after school club for children with moderate learning difficulties;
  • a weekly table tennis club for children aged 5 to 11 years;
  • six competitive football teams from Under 9s to Under 15s;
  • seven weeks of Junior holiday activity schemes; and
  • an annual holiday residential to Hindleap Warren Outdoor Activity Centre in East Sussex.

The Club is also used regularly by other organisations providing services and activities for children and young people, including the Kixstar Dragon Taekwondo Club, Little Kickers Football Club and the Fulham Junior Chess Club.

Providing a range of services six days a week, with a membership of over 600 children and young people and an average daily attendance of 85+, the Club enjoys a good level of support and respect within the local community.

Labour’s u-turn on children’s centres

Among the many false claims made by the Labour MP for Hammersmith was that the Conservative-run Hammersmith and Fulham council was going to close nine of the 15 children’s centres. He specifically said they would close in July 2011. There would just be the “shell of a building”.

In fact the number increased from 15 to 16. The number of sessions at them has doubled. They have more visitors than before. At the same time there has been greater specialisation for those with complex needs. To say that nothing is taking place – that nine of these centres is “just a shell of a building” is not only dishonest but insulting to the fantastic work that goes on there.

Labour’s council election manifesto was more mildly insulting talking about “their aim of re-establishing an effective Sure Start service” implying that the service being provided was ineffective. The reference to “re-establishing” was also odd – implying that earlier provision was the model to aim for even though there were fewer visitors and less specialist help.

Anyway Mr Slaughter’s claim that nine children’s centres closed is not shared by the Labour councillors who now run the council.

A Cabinet Report approved by Labour this week says:

“Contracts to operate Hammersmith and Fulham’s 16 children’s centre sites are due to expire on the 31 March 2015 and do not contain any provisions allowing for contract extensions. Given the financial value of these services, the Council’s Standing Orders (CSOs) would normally require a competition to be run to determine the award of new contracts.

Due to the recent change in administration, the future shape of the services, including any strategic role the new administration sees the service playing in the delivery of key objectives and priorities, is not yet fully defined. To undertake a full scale procurement exercise at this time would therefore not be sensible.

In these circumstances, it is important that the new administration has sufficient time to consider its options for the future service
based on an informed, evidenced and costed options paper. These options could include a review of the use of existing sites, staffing structure and delivery models.

The most pragmatic solution, both to supporting this process of policy development and maintaining continuity of a statutory service with minimum disruption to service users, is to further extend the existing arrangements for a period of up 12 months, by which time future direction and priorities will be clear.”

I am pleased the arrangements are being extended for another year. However there will be considerable uncertainty as to what will follow. If there will be genuine improvements then, of course, that will be welcome.

Still at least Labour now seem to accept that the 16 children’s centres – they are listed here – are not figments of the imagination.

No doubt Mr Slaughter will be anxious to apologise for his misleading claim.