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How We Saved Hillingdon’s Council-run Day Nurseries (for now!) –Orest Bakhovski

Our coalition hopes to gather testimony, and build a library of co-produced resources for childcare activists. We asked parent campaigner Orest Bakhovski to tell us about last year's successful campaign to Save Hillingdon's Public Nurseries...


Our three year old had been going to our local nursery, Uxbridge Early Years, since she was one, when on 4 August 2022, an email informed me and my partner it would close at the end of the year. There was no rationale given, simply the encouragement to go find an alternative. This was clearly an email constructed by a communications team – it was clinical and to the point.


Uxbridge Early Years was one of three nurseries (for under 5s) in Hillingdon Borough that remained open during the pandemic, supporting key workers. The others were South Ruislip and Nestles (Hayes). They supported 102 families, and employed 29 staff members, some of whom had worked in the settings for over 46 years.


Our first response was to panic about options – our 6 month old was also due to start at the nursery. But we quickly got organised, and three months later, on 10 November, a better council communication arrived – Hillingdon Council formally notified the High Court that it was withdrawing its decision to close all three nurseries.


What follows is my breakdown of how parents, carers and nursery workers joined together and fought the closures, with the hope that it might be useful for future campaigns.


Key advice:

Get legal advice asap – from the outset, just do it. If you need to speak to three solicitors, do it. You can then understand how best to tackle the issue. The solicitor will be able to advise as to whether it’s best to go via a Legal Aid or self-funding route.


There are no stupid questions


Make friends – build as many relationships as you can (locally and online). There are no enemies in this process! Speak to Councillors, Unions, Residents Associations, any party that is willing to listen. You can usually find details of local associations on your council website and by speaking to your neighbours.

Allocate designated parents in the group to build those relationships and keep organisation contacts informed of developments. You have a local issue that you want to make them aware of – if they are willing to help you any way they can, brilliant!


Balance social media and real engagement – In addition to creating an online presence e.g. Facebook Group, Instagram profile, Twitter account, don’t forgot that some people may not use these platforms e.g. Residents Associations.


Engage with other campaign groups – there were extreme highs, with extreme lows and frustration. Connecting with those who had been through similar processes was encouraging.


Timeline:

4–14 August 2022

Connecting with Parents and Staff

Asked parents in local friendship groups as well as nursery staff why the decision was made. Informal conversations during pick up and drop off and in separate WhatsApp groups.


The decision had clearly been made centrally and kept under wraps until the “right time” – when parents and opposition councillors went on their summer break.


Freedom of Information Requests

A number of parents had worked with local government before, so a small group of parents each individually logged a number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to understand rationale for the decision.


The responses, received 20 working days after the initial requests, stated that the nurseries had been making sustained losses for the last five years. This immediately begged the question, why use special urgency powers to shut them in the fifth year? Why not increase the charges – just slightly – to make the nurseries sustainable? The nurseries charged 20% below the local average day rate for a 3 year old.


Tip: Check your local council’s process for logging FOI requests. You typically need to be a resident of the borough and share your personal details such as name and address so they can confirm you are a resident.

Remember that your council may try to avoid answering questions – by providing vague answers – so try to make your questions as direct as possible. For example: 'Can we have a copy of the Profit and Loss account for Location XYZ for the period XYZ?' You will likely log FOIs continually throughout your campaign as new information emerges and further questions arise.


Contacting Local Councillors and Making Petitions

We began contacting local councillors, both Labour (opposition) and Conservative (who have a majority on our council). Labour councillors were quick to share the ‘special urgency’ report and meeting minutes upon which the decision was based.


We also started two petitions – one on Change.Org and the other via our Council’s Democratic Services online – which would later be used as a route to further challenge the decision made by the council.


Different councils will have different processes – at ours if you made a petition about something and it wasn’t resolved to your satisfaction it would then go to a Petition hearings (chaired by the relevant Cabinet Member). Search for ‘democracy’ on your council website!


Tip: Check your local council website for a list of your local councillors, with contact details and surgery times (where you can visit them in person) – they tend to be very approachable, particularly when in opposition ;-) and can help you to understand the council democratic services.


Make sure to start petitions as this is another mechanism to get into dialogue with your Council.


Special Urgency Report and Rationale for Decision

A number of councillors pointed parents in the direction of where the decision report was hosted (online) and explained they were unable to challenge the decision as it was made during Summer recess and was under special urgency rules which meant it was not subject to any scrutiny.


Parents discussed the report and felt it an unjust decision made for convenience.


Digging for facts, on the council website (where all the details around decisions should be made public) and through the FOIs, the more gaps we found, for example:

  • Nothing meaningful was done to reduce the financial losses. There was no evidence the council had tried to make the nurseries financially viable. Were they just running the services into the ground so they can sell the land for a quick cash injection?

  • There was no assessment to gauge if there was enough availability at private nurseries if the nurseries were closed

  • The Equality Impact Assessment was not as thorough as it should have been


Tip: Search for your council’s Equality Impact Assessment – it’s highly likely that the closure of a council-run nursery will be a cut that disproportionally impacts particular groups – for example majority women staff, already disadvantaged or minoritized groups, working parents on low incomes, or children with additional needs. If they have logged these problems you can quote them back at them in campaign materials!


15 –20 August 2022

Getting organised

Parents started to converse more via WhatsApp on the issue. We set up a dedicated WhatsApp where we could talk about the closures – this started with 8 parents, which grew in excess of 60.

We then set up a smaller focused group, that ran weekly (Zoom) calls. These were the parents that did the doing, contacted the unions, built those relationships, called round other nurseries, gained support, asked the tough questions of the council etc.

At first the weekly calls were just to keep all parents updated as to what the smaller focused group were doing. These then turned into more structured and productive meetings.


Tip: Run the campaign like a project. Have a regular call with the most active parents (i.e. those that do the doing), but make sure to communicate what you are doing and key next actions with broader parent group. It’s important to have everyone on board for the journey, with option to feed in with their own local knowledge or expertise, when they can.


Contacting our MPs

We began contacting our MPs. John McDonnell, who represents the area where one of the nurseries (Nestle) is based, was very supportive and encouraged us to write to other local MPs that could help.


As such, a number of parents wrote to Boris Johnson MP and David Simmonds MP – Boris was helpfully unhelpful, whilst David encouraged the Council to revisit their decision.


Press/ Media

Local press had picked up the issue of the closures (Hillingdon Gazette) in in early August


We quickly realised it was worth reaching out to other news outlets and charities to highlight the local issue. It also helped that the then PM was our MP and characteristically absent.


Parents were interviewed by ITV Evening News, Channel 5, Times Radio and BBC Radio and Sky News, and Nursery World, Huffington Post, Evening Standard and others covered the campaign.


Tip: Start local. Find charities that support the same causes (such as early years or if your nursery has specific SEN provision) – they can also put you in touch with national newspapers.


We had parents who were confident writing press releases. But if your campaign needs volunteer support on this, it is something Post Pandemic Childcare can connect you to.


Social Media: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook

We created dedicated accounts. Our Facebook group for local parents was invaluable as it allowed us to have meaningful discussions and debates with people from across the Borough.


Tip: Find parents that are savvy in this area! Press/ media tends find you via Facebook and other social media channels, so it’s important to have a presence, and monitor your posts and DMs.


Connecting with other campaigns

By pure luck, Natalie from the Fernbank & Hillside nursery campaign posted on our Facebook group. We jumped at the chance to speak to her as this was a parent who has been through a successful campaign.

Later we connected to Post Pandemic Childcare coalition, again via them contacting us through social media, and met activists who had organised campaigns against the closures of council-run nurseries in Salford and Tower Hamlets.

Joining a London wide WhatsApp group set up by the coalition extended our network further, and was helpful in ensuring we focused our efforts in the right area.


Legal advice

A number of parents spoke to solicitors who might help – including ones that represented the parents of children at Fernbank & Hillside affected parents.


Watkins & Gunn (based in Wales) were settled on due to their experience and success in Judicial Review challenges.


Impacted parents ended up using the Legal Aid route, which meant we didn’t need to crowdfund, or worry about potential escalating court costs. Our solicitor talked us through all the process for this, however there is a quick eligibility test here. https://www.gov.uk/check-legal-aid


Tip: Find a solicitor that has experience of Judicial Review and Legal Aid. It’s critical to understand how they can support you, so make sure to speak to them if you have any queries.


September 2022

Connecting with Nursery Workers and Union Engagement

One of the biggest challenges we had was that the council was actively discouraging the Early Years staff from engaging with parents/campaigners – it was difficult seeing so many loyal staff being caught between a rock and hard place.


As such, the union representing the nursery staff, Unison, was invaluable in ensuring staff were supported.


Unison also introduced us to the Hillingdon Trade Union Council, who invited us to speak at their local meet up.

This provided an opportunity for us to outline what parents were doing and understand how best we could support staff via all the local trade unions.


Tip: Ensure you build a relationship with your local unions, their knowledge and ability to organise members is second to none!


First formal legal step: Letter Before Action

16 September 2022 – a Letter Before Action was sent by Watkins and Gunn Solicitors to Hillingdon Council. This letter was sent after affected parents had gathered enough evidence to support the case.


Tip: Evidence gathering is a key priority. Your solicitor will tell you exactly what is needed to build a case.


Rally

The campaign held a large rally outside Hillingdon Civic Centre on 22 September 2022, before a group of us went into the Council’s General Meeting.


Over 100 people attended the rally! We promoted this via Unison, the union, and everyone we’d already connected with. We printed flyers and posters and put them up in local businesses and shopping centres.

MP John McDonnell attended, and shared details on his social media.


Tip: Coordinate with the unions in order to help with rally attendance and getting the message out there.

And speak to your Local MPs!


General Council Meeting

After the rally, a group of us had attended and posed a number of questions regarding the validity of the decision. The General Council meeting was attended by all councillors, therefore, it was a good opportunity to get heard. This was separate to the petition hearing which happened later.


At Hillingdon, resident is entitled to raise a public question to the leader of the council and cabinet about local matters. There is a 30 min time limit for these questions, and other rules about what can be asked, and we had to email the question in advance.


Tip: Ensure you leverage all democratic routes and pose direct questions formally and publicly to the council outside of the FOI route.


October 2022

“A pause” – Council Communication to Parents

21 October 2022 – a letter was sent to parents and carers, of children at the nurseries, stating that the decision was ‘pending review’, due to the petitions we had lodged. It said the decision would be ‘paused’ until the relevant cabinet member had heard our petitions in November. The letter contained no detail as to when any ‘new’ decision might be made.


Tip: Make sure to seek clarity if none is given. This is best done via the same route as the communication received .


November 2022

Petition Hearing

We received 100+ number of local signatories to the petition we had set up on our council’s website (Democratic Services). This meant we were entitled to speak at a council ‘petition hearing’ regarding the decision for 15 minutes.


This was separate to the Change.Org petition, which was signed by anyone – inside and outside the Borough. Its purpose was to add to the local signatories, broaden our message and reach – building wider support.


At this meeting, parents met with key representatives from the council – democratic and administrative – the councillor that heads up the Education Committee, and council employees – the Head of Early Years/Education, as well as the Head of SEND within the Borough.


This was an opportunity to outline our concerns based on everything we’d heard to date. We had three parents prepare a speech to outline the alternative options available to the council, asking why more wasn’t done to save the nurseries.


After this, next steps from the council were left unclear.


Tip: Your council’s Democratic Services should explain to you how you can be heard. Make sure you use these opportunities to continue to outline your concerns, particularly in relation to any new information that you have gained since you started.


In Hillingdon, if you create a council petition on their website, you then get the opportunity to speak directly to the relevant Cabinet Member for a certain amount of time and put forward your views. At this meeting, Local ward councillors also get the opportunity to speak for a certain amount of time, responding to your petition. The timings depend on how many signatures you get.


Court Proceedings Lodged

4 November 2022 – Court Proceedings Lodged by Parents fighting the closure of Hillingdon’s Early Years Centres - Watkins and Gunn.


The Judicial Review claim challenged Hillingdon's decision to close the early years centres on five grounds:

1. The use of special urgency powers to close a service was unlawful – the decision was taken in breach of the council’s executive arrangements and was therefore in breach of section 9D of the Local Government Act 2000;

2. The council failed to carry out a statutory consultation in breach of section 5D of the Childcare Act 2006;

3. The council breached the public sector equality duty at section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 by failing to identify ways to mitigate against the negative impacts of the closures on children and failing to consider whether working mothers would be negatively impacted by the cessation of cheaper and more local childcare;

4. The council failed to promote and improve the well-being of children contrary to section 1 of the Childcare Act 2006 and section 11 of the Children Act 2004; and

5. The council unreasonably failed to make sufficient enquiries in relation to the financial implications of the decision


For more detail check out this press release on our solicitor's website


“A Fresh Decision” pending – Council Communication to Parents


4 November 2022 – the same day the proceedings are lodged, the Council emails parents and carers with some details, stating a ‘fresh’ decision will be made on the 15 December 2022. As we tweeted it’s worth noting that no dates were communicated to parents, worried about their childcare situation in a matter of months, until after the solicitors got involved.


Success!

10 November 2022 – Hillingdon Council formally notifies High Court of its decision to withdraw the 4 August decision – the nurseries will remain open into 2023! More detail at the 1 Crown office row website here here. Between 4–10 November I assume there was a lot of dialogue between the legal teams!


Thank you

The sheer determination and willingness to challenge the Council decision of a number of parents and carers made this happen! Laura Dabbs, Beatriz Salvado Garaboa, Kanisa Biles, Claire Goulding, Kemi Baptiste, Mayank Madan, Kristina Dooley, Jade Field and Alex Sim to name a few.

Big thanks also to:

- Hillingdon Unison

- Hillingdon Trade Union Council members

- Parents and campaigners part of the Post Pandemic Childcare network, including parents involved in Fight for the Five Salford, and Save our Nurseries Tower Hamlets.

- Pregnant then Screwed

- Women’s Budget Group

- All the journalists who covered our campaign

- All the opposition councillors and MPs who helped, including John McDonnell, MP for Hayes

- Lucy O’Brien and team at Watkins & Gunn Solicitor and 1 Crown Office Row (counsel)


Tip: We used any routes available to contact the above individuals and groups (twitter DMs, public emails, and scoured our network for direct contacts). MPs and councillors were best contacted via formal routes i.e. email and phone.


What next?

Considering the latest pressures on Local Government and delayed public sector spending cuts, there is a risk the council will look shut the nurseries again, through due process. As such, we are keeping our ears close to the ground and in contact with the network of allies we built up in the run-up to 10 November decision.


Thankfully, both staff and parents had a drama free Christmas and New Year’s break. Long may that continue.


Please follow us on Twitter for updates, and to be ready to support any future struggles!


As part of the 'Grow Your Own' oral history project, run by On the Record and Post-Pandemic Childcare Coalition we will be developing this article and further useful materials for campaigners. 'Grow Your Own' is looking to the history of community action and childcare campaigns for inspiration today https://on-the-record.org.uk/


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