THE leader of a Conservative-run council has described a government decision to claw back £400,000 of grant funding it gave for children’s centre as “absolutely ridiculous”, after hearing it was only because the government had withdrawn funding for the centre that it had closed.

Councillor Heather Scott made the remarks as Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet pressed ahead with the move to create a school for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) children at the site of the Haughton Children’s Centre, which closed in 2017, despite facing the huge payout if it does so.

The meeting was told a clause in the council’s £556,000 grant from the Department for Education to establish the children’s centre stated if the authority ceased to use the building for the original purpose of the grant before 2035 it would have to hand back £400,000 of the funding.

Instead, the building, which will be leased to the Education Village Academy Trust and Beaumont Hill Academy at a peppercorn rent, will be used to create specialist placements for a spiralling number of SEND pupils in the borough, rather than educate them at high cost out of area specialist placements.

An officers’ report to the meeting stated the situation had unravelled after the council was told using the site to create SEND placements at Beaumont Hill Academy, a specialised school serving pupils aged two to 19, was only unacceptable to the government because the grant had been to educated children aged up to five-years-old.

Opposition leader Councillor Stephen Harker said the whole issue was about the government not funding education properly.

He said: “Haughton Children’s Centre had to be closed because of cutbacks in government funding.

“We didn’t have any choice about it. We are now facing clawback from the same government that cut funding that meant we had to close the children’s centre and we are now in a strange situation where we appear to be almost giving away the asset to Beaumont Hill to prop up another service which the government is also not funding.”

Cllr Scott replied that the council had appealed the decision to the government, but had not heard back.

She said: “I’m not going to comment on the politics of that, but it seems to me sensible that we have a building there that could be used for a special school and here we have a shortage of places, we are having to send out of the area for special educational needs and I think it’s just absolutely crazy that they are clawing this money back.

“We have made representations and hopefully we will continue with that.

“I share your view, it’s ridiculous, the building has been empty for so long and we want to good use, so hopefully sense will prevail.”