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Anger as Kent County Council’s youth club at Ashford North Family Hub closes

Devastated parents say they don't know how their autistic children will cope now a “lifeline” youth club has shut down.

Sessions at Ashford North Family Hub in Willesborough ended yesterday after site operator Kent County Council (KCC) told families it would be closing with just a week’s notice.

The last youth club session at Ashford North Family Hub was held on Wednesday
The last youth club session at Ashford North Family Hub was held on Wednesday

It is part of the authority’s plan to cut youth services to save about £900,000 and bring them under one umbrella called ‘Family Hubs’.

The decision was voted through in November despite public backlash and fears of a rise in gang crime and mental health issues.

The building itself is remaining open as a ‘Family Hub’ - which KCC says supports children, young people and their families - but the last youth club session was held on Wednesday evening.

Parent Jamie Weatherall says news of the closure came as a big shock to his 18-year-old son Joshua who has autism and regularly attends the site in Mabledon Avenue, which is next to The North School.

“It's the key place for people with disabilities and autism as well as families under stress,” Mr Weatherall said.

Jamie Weatherall with 18-year-old son Joshua
Jamie Weatherall with 18-year-old son Joshua

“My son has autism and he has a problem socialising appropriately; he will talk to anyone so this is a good place for him to go and make friends safely.

“Community centres are being shut down left right and centre, so this to me is a seriously bad move.

“The youth club was not just there for young people to socialise, it was also a safety net for them if they were stressed and if they were not sure how to talk about things.

“It has caused my son a lot of distress because that one thing he had, to go and see his friends, was removed overnight with no explanation.

“For someone on the autistic spectrum, to take something away so suddenly without a heads-up is tough.”

The Ashford North Family Hub in Mabledon Avenue, Willesborough
The Ashford North Family Hub in Mabledon Avenue, Willesborough

The hub has also been a huge support for 15-year-old Finlay Holwell-Baker who has Down’s Syndrome.

His mum Lorraine Holwell says he started attending the hub following a recent autism diagnosis and has thrived.

“We had a phone call last week from those who run it to say Wednesday would be the last day,” explained the 53-year-old.

“They said it was temporary but they don't know when it is coming back.

“When we were introduced to the youth hub, it brought Finlay out of himself.

“For them to now take it away from him, he won't have that social aspect of things.

Finlay Holwell-Baker was a regular user of the Ashford North Family Hub. Picture: Lorraine Holwell
Finlay Holwell-Baker was a regular user of the Ashford North Family Hub. Picture: Lorraine Holwell

“He enjoys it, there are so many things he can do from quiet time, arts and crafts and playing outside.

“It's the only place around where he can have his own space without us being there too.”

In a statement, a KCC spokeswoman says it has had to make “some very difficult proposals and decisions” amid financial struggles at the authority.

She said: “It’s been well documented that due to the increasing need for council services and lack of funding from central government, KCC is facing significant financial challenges and must save £84.5m this year to balance the budget.

“KCC initially looked at achieving savings through council efficiencies and streamlining, however these were not enough and so has looked at how it finances and provides services to ensure it can continue to meet its statutory responsibilities to residents in the future.

“The overall savings made by not renewing the discretionary youth contracts is £913,000.

“We know residents of all ages value these services, but we must adapt to the hard financial realities.

“In the face of these challenges, moving to Family Hubs will help us to better target services to young people where they are needed most – through a mix of on-site, online and community settings.

“A needs assessment of children in each district will be undertaken soon to help inform and better target our services where they are most needed and increase the advice available for parents and carers to support their children through the Family Hub.

“The wider universal offer for families and children will be developed with the Family Hub network, working with community groups and local offers within the Family Hub network and continue to evolve through feedback.

“Family Hub staff will continue to provide a range of information to families including other local services.

“Together with our partners, we’re working to ensure this transition is as smooth as possible.

“We’re also offering support to all affected youth groups and will continue to work with any community groups able to provide services to Kent’s young people.”

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