Funding for children’s centres has been slashed by nearly a quarter in four years, according to figures analysed by the Local Government Association (LGA).
The chronic underfunding of children’s services means centres are facing a fight for survival and many more could face closure.
The loss of funding comes as councils face rising demand for support for children in care, meaning they are having to cut or end early years services in order to make ends meet.
While spending on children’s centres has fallen, councils have had to increase how much money is spent on children in care by almost a fifth.
Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said it was “inevitable” that without new investment from government in children’s services, councils will face the “difficult but unavoidable decision” of having to cut or close early help services such as children’s centres.
The LGA, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, is urging the government to take action in the Spending Review this year.
Research by the Sutton Trust last year found as many as 1,000 children’s centres may have closed since 2009.
The latest figures show that councils spent £480,513,000 on Sure Start children’s centres in 2017/18, which is almost 25 per cent less than the £637,265,000 spent in 2014/15.
Councils in England are currently responsible for 75,420 looked-after children – the highest number since the 1980s.
Councils spent nearly £4.3 billion providing vital care and support for looked after children in 2017/18, an 18 per cent increase since 2014/15.
The funding pressures are so great that nine in 10 councils are now overspending their children’s social care budgets, which includes funding for children’s centres.
Bramble said children’s centres can “provide a lifeline for children, parents and carers” and offer an important service in the local community.
“This could be anything from advice for parents on physical and mental health, caring for a new-born, or simply a place for children to enjoy free-play and interact with one another,” she said.
“While many councils have adapted well to the funding pressures and changed how they provide children’s centre services, there is a growing sense that councils have done all they can within ever tightening budgets.”
She added it was important the government delivers a long-term sustainable funding solution for children’s services in this year’s spending review.
The Department for Education has been approached for a comment.