Another day, another chunk of the state the Conservatives wish they hadn’t lopped off. This time, it’s Sure Start: the children’s centres New Labour rolled out across the country that hit their peak numbers in 2010.
There is copious evidence of their transformative impact. Around 13,000 admissions of children to hospital each year were likely prevented by the work of Sure Start children’s centres, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. These spaces were a vital source of help and support for parents, and meant children were physically healthier, and had more stimulating and less chaotic home environments. Mothers reported better life satisfaction and less impulse for harsh discipline. Research commissioned by the government itself found in 2016 that overall they delivered value for money.
Never ones to miss an opportunity for false economies, the Conservatives, when they were elected in 2010, took a look at early-years provision and decided that a good place to start cutting was at the very beginning of children’s lives. Since 2010, the policy of austerity has led to the closure of 1,416 Sure Start centres in England (down from a total of 3,620 in 2010 to 2,204 in 2023) – a figure that doesn’t even include children’s centre sites linked to Sure Start.
Now, Rishi Sunak is boasting that he will open 75 “family hubs” by 2025. This is bucket-hole government. Having drilled a hole in a bucketful of water 13 years ago, the Conservative government is trickling some back in again and asking the country to ignore the leak. Boris Johnson did the same with police – promising when he was prime minister to recruit 20,000 more officers without mentioning the 20,600 lost through cuts between 2010 and 2019.
Sunak’s knock-off Sure Starts are another tacit admission of austerity’s failure. Some ministers from that era have been more explicit. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who was health secretary in the David Cameron years, admitted to me that social care cuts “went too far”. David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary under Theresa May, conceded to me that they had “pushed the limit” on reducing welfare.
Yet somehow this government’s only prescription, albeit deferred until after the next general election, is to drill another hole.