THE impending closure of a popular Portsmouth nursery has sparked concerns about the sustainability of free childcare in the area.
Following the announcement that the council-owned Willows Centre for Children on Battenburg Avenue will be closing its doors in March next year, nursery heads have warned this could not be an isolated incident.
Portsmouth City Council stated that the closure was due to 'a number of challenges', however, workers from other sites believed a government initiative that provides 30 hours a week of free childcare could have taken a toll.
The scheme applies to three and four-year-olds whose parents earn less than £100,000 a year. Although it is advertised as free it is thought the cost to most centres is around £1 an hour per child as the average government funding of £4.34 per hour is not enough.
Cheryl Hadland, the managing director of Tops Day Nurseries, which has two sites in Portsmouth, explained the situation. She said: 'We are being seriously underfunded by the government.
'For us it's about £1.20 on top of what we're given an hour. The parents don't mind paying it because it still only works out about £30 a week. But if you are in a more deprived area or an area where a lot of people are on benefits it's impossible to do this.
'Funding depends on where your nursery is as every local authority pays a different amount. Over 50 per cent of nurseries and pre-schools in the country are running at a loss.
'The government has said this is free to everyone. But it's not. It's not free for the taxpayers or the nurseries.'
Her fears were met by Nicola Atkinson, the head of Gosport-based Oaktree Family Group, which may be forced to charge parents for the difference.
'It has had an impact across the country, it's a national issue,' she said.
'In the last two weeks three sites have closed. Locally we are trying to do the best we can but it doesn't surprise me to hear that one in Portsmouth is closing.'
'Our shortfall is 68p an hour which is not sustainable.
'We're in a large area of deprivation so we have never considered charging the parents before. But the government is pushing us into making that decision.'
The council stated that children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) who attended Willows will be able to continue learning at Cliffdale Primary Academy and the Mary Rose Academy on the same site as Willows.
Speaking about the closure Mike Stoneman, the council's deputy director for children, families and education, said: 'The non-specialist childcare nursery provision at Willows will close at the end of March 2019. A recent review of the service has identified that it is not a financially sustainable childcare provision.
'We're working closely with families that current access a childcare place to secure alternative local places.'