Small voices of sanity ring out at Camden Council in the chaos of modern politics

Thursday, 24th February 2011

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Published: 24th February, 2011
by TOM FOOT, RICHARD OSLEY and PAVAN AMARA

TWO young girls upstaged councillors as they argued over spending cuts last night (Wednesday) dramatically silencing the bickering in the main Town Hall chamber and delivering their own stinging riposte to council chiefs wielding the axe over their play centres. 

It was the first time children as young as Ashleigh Begum, 10, and Grace Germain, 9, have been allowed to appear before the cabinet of senior councillors to deliver a deputation.

With astonishing confidence in the daunting arena of a packed chamber –  a forum where even elected councillors are sometimes hampered by nerves – they illustrated the danger of withdrawing funding and effectively closing down services their parents rely on.

Standing up and at the top of her voice, Ashleigh stared down council leader Nash Ali and said: “We are the children of the future, you are the children of the past. We are all different, but we all have one thing in common: we need somewhere safe to play.”

She said her time at the Winchester Project in Swiss Cottage had taught her valuable lessons about dignity, community and respect for others.

“All children who go to play centres meet all sorts of children. Some who have disabilities, some who have been naughty, some who have something bad happen to them – but we all play together and we all learn from each other. We are a community, we are a family.”

Grace, who goes to the 3 Acres Community Play Project in Belsize Park, added: “People have lots of different reasons for coming to play centres. Some come because they have no brothers or sisters to play with and they are lonely at home.

“Some of our parents have gone back to college to help them find a new skill. My mum went to college to study how to become a teacher – if they stop the play centre she would not be able to do that. The play workers are more than workers, they become our friends as well. We are told that every child matters and children have rights – well we want the right to have somewhere safe to play. ”

The deputations came as Camden’s Labour Party, albeit with dissent from a clutch of backbenchers, prepares to finalise a budget which will see up to £100 million cut over three years.

Cabinet members were meeting for the final time before their plans are debated and voted on by  all councillors on Monday night. Outside children and parents staged a “play date” to highlight their protest, stopping traffic and creating a festival style feel in the streets around the council’s headquarters in King’s Cross. Cabinet members took turns to go out and speak to the crowds, each blaming the coalition government for the cuts they were about to sign up to. 

In theory, the Labour majority in Camden will ensure the budget is formally ratified.

As with old peoples lunch clubs and libraries, play centres will either endure crippling cuts or complete closures.

In a repetitive cycle of debate, Labour blames the government for hacking back public spending, while opponents say the root cause lies in poor planning and decisions by the Gordon Brown government dismissed from power last May. The Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the Greens have also claimed Labour locally are making bad decisions over the budget, claiming spending holes could be covered in part by “efficiency” savings like sharing services with other boroughs.

The opposition parties said they would be “keeping their powder dry” until the budget debate on Monday.

Council leader Labour Cllr Nash Ali opened the meeting by blaming the Coalition government for what  he said was dismantling the welfare state and “replacing it with private sector companies and Victorian-style philanthropy”. He added: “It is a right-wing revolution.”

But there was criticism of the pace of cuts being agreed by his own party with the Caversham Children’s Centre in Kentish Town and the Acol Children’s Centre in West Hampstead facing complete shutdown.

Labour councillor Mike Katz, whose daughter Eva uses Acol, said: “The council is cutting the wrong place at the wrong time here.” His wife, Penny, led a deputation inside the meeting, raising eyebrows in the opposition ranks.

Dario Taraborelli, whose daughter goes to Acol, said: “Acol has the second longest waiting list of all the children’s centres – the length of the waiting lists across Camden are crazy.. My wife is a teacher and I’m a full-time researcher. One of us would have to stop working.”

Meanwhile, the Save Caversham Children’s Centre campaign group has worked out a business case that they say could keep the centre afloat without the need for closure.

Pregnant mum Lucy Manuel said: “We are talking to them in financial terms. No emotion, just money. Because that is what they respond to. We have delivered our figures to Cllr Blackwell.”

Mother Jane Gaffney, whose child attends Weedington play centre, which is facing cuts said: “This is down to local government. My child has special needs. He has Aspergers and he is autistic. I desperately need this play centre. I am a single mum and get no other help. My boy needs this, and if I didn’t have it there would be absolutely no respite for me.”

And Michelle Blythe, another mother with a child at Weedington, said: “I have three boys and have spent all of this year studying at college so I can get a job. I basically can’t work if there is no play centre, and I’ll be stuck on benefits, and eventually left with nothing.”

Danielle Yapp, a senior play worker at Castlehaven play centre, said: “This isn’t even a Tory led council, but they lack backbone. I am the under-5s project manager as well as a play worker, but I now know that this is really going to affect the under-5s, and I’ve already been told I’ll only have half a job going for me in future.”

Isla Groves, 10, who goes to Beckford play centre, said: “I learned how to play football and it meant I got onto the school football team. I don’t have many friends that are girls in my class at school and at play centre I got to meet lots of different people. My mum has just got a new job – she’s a teacher. But she says she would have to stop if the play centre goes.”

Yike Tsang, a mother whose child attends Castlehaven playcentre, said: “When people work in a play centre for example, they are monitored. They get paid a certain amount and they don’t decide how much. But in the council they’re not monitored – they decide how much they want to pay each other, and nobody stops them. That money should be going towards our services.”

Labour finance chief Councillor Theo Blackwell said: “We recognise that one parent without childcare is a parent without work. 

“That is why we did our best to protect children and young services. But the council budget as a whole is like a balloon, if you squeeze part of it, another part suffers.”

He said that his colleagues had suffered “allergic reactions” when they had realised the scale of the budget cuts facing the council.

“We have tried to protect the most vulnerable, we have tried to do things to help, but there is no magic bullet, there is no rabbit in the hat. There is no cavalry coming marching over the hills – I don’t think there ever was.”

The full council meeting is on Monday. A protest march against cuts is due take place from Mornington Crescent to the Town Hall, where the meeting will be held, from 5.30pm.

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