By Mary Smith

A well-attended public meeting on Febuary 15, called to organize protests against Peterborough City Council’s proposal to cut children’s play service as part of its budget cuts, attracted members of the public, parents and families who use the play service and do not want to see it closed.

The play service, aimed at children between 5 and 14 years old, provides invaluable assistance to families in the most deprived areas of the city. In efforts to meet a £17 million shortfall, the council is proposing cuts to many desperately needed services. It has earmarked eight play centres across the city for closure–Crofts Corner in Bretton, The Tunnel in Orton Malbourne, Charteris in Welland, Chestnuts in Eastfield, the Spinney in Ravensthorpe, the Iqbal Centre in Central Ward, Thistle Drive in Stanground, and Peterborough Adventure play centre in Paston.

Parveen, who has worked in play service for five years, explained to our reporters that the service has already been heavily eroded by budget cuts. Initially, “the play centres were open five days a week, but due to continual underfunding over the past two years, there are some [now] open two days a week while some only open one day.”

She had previously worked at Hobsons play centre, which has since closed, so now works one day each week at Beeches School and one day at the Iqbal Centre. The closure of these centres, she said, would “definitely have a detrimental effect on the children.”

The meeting was chaired by Stuart Mathers, a rep for the Unite trade union and a local Labour Party activist. Mathers explained the key role played by the play service. It exists, he said, “to prevent children being put into care, or being put at harm in their home: to make them feel equipped and empowered, with their parents, in order for them to have a safe, secure and loving family life.” He went on to ask, “Why get rid of a service that is helping to stop children being put into care, (which is even more expensive)?” Cutting the preventative service of play centres would, he said, “be more costly in the long run.”

Helen Churchill, a play worker, said that in her nine years in the city she had seen “a lot of children come and go and develop into adults.” Some of those adults still come in for a chat “because they trust us.”

They had asked the children “what the play centre does for them. Many said they feel safe there and they trust us and can talk to us.”

There is an open access centre, which can accommodate around 40 children in a session. The children “all have individual needs but just want to be children and play in a safe environment. They stick to our boundaries and rules, but we enable them to develop and make their own decisions in a safe environment.”

The centres have had a “significant” impact on some children, who had not wanted to speak with adults: “We allowed them to play and be children, and without realising it they developed important social skills.”

She pointed to the vital support and help also available to the children’s parents. If the centres closed, “Most of the children and young people, who all come from deprived areas, will think what’s the point in trusting adults and trying to better and develop themselves further because no one cares? The knock-on effects will be anti-social behaviour because they have nowhere safe to go, wandering the streets because they want to come out of the house.”

Despite the evident opposition to the proposals, the only response proposed by the meeting was to appeal to the council to change their minds. Mathers called on people at the meeting to take petitions and get signatures to send to the council. He called on protesters to write to individual councillors protesting at the proposed closures, and to join a demonstration next week in the city centre: “I want the council to see the strength of feeling against this. If we act now, before the plans go to full council, then we have a chance of getting this overturned. If we take to the streets and voice our feelings to the public … they will know what they are about to lose.”

Mathers is pushing the idea that such a reversal will be achieved by the Labour Party, while across the country Labour councils are implementing cuts just as savage as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. In councils where it is in opposition, Labour has not lifted a finger to mobilise against austerity, instead tying the protests to doomed legal challenges. Peterborough Labour’s manifesto for last year’s council elections made no commitment to overturning the cuts or reversing privatisation, pledging only to “restrain the excesses of the Tory council.”

In line with this, various speakers ended up not opposing the cuts but advancing alternative suggestions for what the council could be cutting instead of the play centres.

Some speakers did point to the broader cuts agenda, but saw the trade unions as the vehicle for opposing these cuts. Mathers offered some idea of how this would likely end. He was asked from the floor if there was a cheaper option for keeping the play centres open that could be put to the council. It would reduce the cost considerably, he said, if the council gave the buildings to the communities to run and they could also be utilised for other things. He offered no suggestion as to how the communities would finance the upkeep of the buildings.

As with library closures, this “volunteer” model could be used as a means of implementing the cuts.

When a Socialist Equality Party member spoke from the floor of the necessity of independent organisations of the working class to fight against all cuts, Mathers cut him short saying they only wanted to discuss the play centre closures.