COUNCIL chiefs have apologised after only Labour councillors were briefed on controversial plans to axe children’s centres before they were made public.
Rachael Shimmin, Durham County Council’s corporate director for children and adults services, admitted her service had just got it wrong, failed to act “in the constitutional way” and said she absolutely held her hands up.
“That was our mistake in the service. I apologise on behalf of the service,” she said, before promising it would not happen again.
Cllr Ossie Johnson, the Labour cabinet member for children and young people’s services, also apologised, but stressed there had been “no clandestine motivation behind the oversight”.
However, Liberal Democrat leader Amanda Hopgood said the same thing had happened over leisure centre closures.
She called for a 12-week consultation agreed by the council’s Labour cabinet earlier this month to be halted, pending further investigation.
However, the Labour-controlled overview and scrutiny committee rejected this, voting to take no further action.
“So much for consultation,” Cllr Hopgood said.
The council is looking at slashing its children’s centres from 43 to 15, with 28 being transferred to schools and nurseries or used for other purposes.
The proposals were announced earlier this month. But, while Labour councillors were pre-warned, opposition members were not – even if they had centres affected in their area.
Lib Dems and Conservatives demanded the issue be “called in” for further investigation, leading to today’s (Thursday, July 31) committee.
Lib Dem Mamie Simmons claimed Labour knew three weeks before the opposition.
“All members of this authority should be treated the same,” she said.
Ms Shimmin said all councillors were briefed before consultation began but admitted the mistake and said lessons had been learned.
Cllr Joe Armstrong, the committee’s Labour chair, said it was very big of Ms Shimmin to apologise but asked for an assurance it would not happen again, which Ms Shimmin gave.
The shake-up would save about £1m a year from an annual service budget of £4.9m at a time when the council faces cuts of £224m between 2011 and 2017.
Council chiefs say the centres have not reached children most in need and an improved service would be offered from community venues.
The consultation runs until October 23. To take part, visit durham.gov.uk/childrenscentreconsultation, call 03000-266-510, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to: Children’s Centre Consultation, FREEPOST, NEA10933, County Hall, Durham, DH1 5BR.