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Centres for all ages

Rather than simply closing children’s centres and other community facilities for short-term savings, why not create hubs for people of all ages and reap long-term rewards? Stephen Burke explains

London mayor Boris Johnson lays a time capsule at the site of Acacia Intergenerational Centre in Mitcham, south London. The UK’s first purpose-built centre of its kind, it was officially opened by Merton Council last year.

Amid all the gloom about spending cuts, there are some grounds for optimism. Since we launched United for All Ages at the end of 2010, we have been encouraged by the number of people contacting us who want to do things differently.

That’s not to underplay the scale of the cuts. Local authorities faced with almost 30% cuts over the next four years, much of which are front-loaded, have difficult choices to make. But as always this is about priorities and being creative.

The cuts really do highlight councils’ (as well as government’s) real priorities. If you want to protect a particular service, you can. There are councils which have made a commitment, for example, not to close any children’s centres but to do things differently to keep them open.

Closing hundreds of children’s centres in the next four years is not acceptable; instead we need new ways to make those centres sustainable. Rationing care so that most older people can’t get the help they need is not acceptable; we need a fairer way to pay for care and to support family carers better. Local communities are battling with many similar dilemmas.

As many of the public services we have taken for granted come under threat, it is time to re-evaluate how we make the best use of resources for all ages.

There are cross-generational solutions to these issues which will benefit all ages and our whole society as part of a new contract between the generations. For example, centres for all ages – bringing younger and older people together on one site – make sense both socially and economically. They would help build stronger communities and would make much better use of existing resources.

Councils can encourage local services to share sites to prevent the closure of community facilities like libraries, children’s centres, youth clubs, job centres and health practices. Such ‘shared sites’ could create 5,000 centres for all ages in the next five years and help build stronger communities.

United for All Ages recently welcomed new guidance from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to local authorities on modernising libraries, suggesting they share sites with other local services and open community facilities like cafes and internet centres.

Spending cuts demand creativity. With many services being reduced or facing closure, councils have to look at different ways of doing things. Sharing sites can be a win-win – protecting local services from closure and bringing local communities closer together.

Councils like Merton and Brent are already developing intergenerational centres, building on children’s centres and opening them up to the wider community.

Other service providers have approached United for All Ages about how they could work with other age groups for mutual benefit. A council-run youth club in a rural village is seeking to increase community involvement and generate income – their latest idea is to run a ‘young at heart’ club at lunchtimes using the same principles as a youth club but for adults. And a voluntary organisation providing daycare for older people is talking to a local school about relocating to the school site and offering classes for younger and older people together.

United for All Ages has just launched the first annual ‘awards for all ages’ to celebrate and promote exemplars of good practice and innovation. We are clear about the criteria against which entries will be judged. For example, it’s important that centres have partnered with their local community to meet local needs; services must be more than simply co-located on a shared site – they must be genuinely integrated across ages; and critically in these times they must be financially sustainable, drawing in a range of funding streams.

The award-winning entries will help show how centres for all ages make social and economic sense. With policymaking seemingly relying increasingly on anecdote, it’s vital to have examples of where ideas are making a real difference to local people. Therefore evaluation as well as innovation needs to be properly recognised by the awards.

We now need to ensure awareness of the awards and encourage entries, almost as an antidote to the cuts by showing how things can be done differently. One of the consequences of the massive public spending cuts could be growing conflict between the generations in the battle to protect frontline services. I think it’s fair to say that the cuts appear to be hitting children, young people and their families hardest so far, particularly those on lower incomes.

The impact is not just on the next generation. It’s also squeezing their parents and grandparents who are increasingly expected to pick up the pieces – whether it’s paying extra bills or providing childcare. There is a real danger that this will create tensions between different generations and undermine universal benefits and services.

Promoting intergenerational conflict is not the answer to tackling the profound problems and inequalities in Britain today. We are much stronger as a society and in our communities if we are united, not divided. Centres for all ages are the future. With leadership and community support, we can make them happen.

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