Guest post from Bow East Councillor, Marc Francis:
For the second year running families with young children in Bow have been dealt a serious blow by Tower Hamlets Council. Last year, it was news of the closure of the Overland Day Nursery. This year it is the permanent closure of the much-loved One O’clock Club in Victoria Park.
For those who don’t know it, the Vicky Park One O’clock Club was one of dozens set up by the Greater London Council in the 1970s to offer safe spaces for young children to play and a chance for new Mums and Dads to meet other parents. In many ways the One O’clock Clubs blazed the trail for the Sure Start Children’s Centres brought in by the last Labour Government.
Tower Hamlets had several, including at the Collingwood estate in Whitechapel and in Wapping. The club in Vicky Park, though was always one of the most popular. Even when I first took our eldest son to it five years ago, there were regularly twenty children or more at each stay and play session. And the workers were fantastic – taking time with each child and each parent too.
The club was closed for “essential repairs and improvements” 18 months ago. It’s fair to say that, after nearly five decades playing host to tens of thousands of East End toddlers it was in need of a bit of sprucing up. But local ward councillors in Bow always suspected the closure would end up becoming permanent as part of the cuts in Early Years Services.
As the result of the intervention of several Cabinet members in the run-up to the May 2018 local elections, additional funding was set aside in the budget to keep the club open two or three days a week and an extra £50,000 earmarked to cover the costs of the refurbishment works. However, within days of the elections Children’s Services secretly began moves to close the club permanently. When word of this got out, a council spokesperson pretended the club had only ever been “temporary”, but said the stay and play sessions in the park would remain, leading journalists and residents to assume the club would re-open.
Last autumn, I was told by an officer in a different team that Children’s Services had already deemed it surplus to requirements and so it was going to be taken over by another department. Several of us challenged that, and were told Children’s Services were thinking about it again. The Lead Member for Children’s Services then assured us proper consideration would be given to continuing with stay and play sessions at the club once the cost of the works had been determined.
Despite that assurance, it is now clear that no meaningful consideration was actually given to retaining the One O’clock Club. Back in July, Children’s Services put the final nail in the club’s coffin. In keeping with its approach over the past few years, it not only failed to consult with councillors, parents and the local community, they didn’t even bother to tell anyone the final decision had been made.
I have tried for several months to obtain the report detailing the pros and cons of keeping the One O’clock Club open. Needless to say that wasn’t forthcoming. In fact, for weeks they couldn’t even tell me the body or individual officer who made the decision. The council’s lawyers have also tried to claim this isn’t a “key decision” that needs to be made by the Mayor in public because few people were using it – a claim rather undermined when Children’s Services itself admitted there had been over 500 children attend in the year before it was closed.
Faced by this wall of obfuscation and misinformation, I asked the Scrutiny Committee covering Children’s Services to take a closer look. And I am delighted that the committee will now be doing that this evening. Interestingly, this has already forced officers to publish some of the secret reports that led to the closure. And they’re a pretty threadbare bunch of documents with no objective analysis of the benefits of keeping the One O’clock Club open. In one revealing passage, however, they admit the extra cost of the capital works needed to bring the building up to scratch is just £30,000.
I am under no illusion that shining a light on this awful decision will mean it is reversed – at least not any time soon. Too many people in the Town Hall have invested too much time and energy firstly running this service into the ground and then deceiving the public that the club’s closure was only temporary. But I do think it will help expose the endemic flaws in the decision-making process in Mulberry Place and perhaps even give us a chance to secure a better way of doing things in future.
In the meantime, on behalf of all those parents who loved Vicky Park One O’clock Club, I for one want to raise a Christmas toast to thank the staff who worked there during those 50 years and made it such a special place for our children.
Please sign the petition Keep the One O’Clock Club in Victoria Park OPEN