Somerset County Council’s Proposals to Rationalise its Childrens’ Centres are a Shambles

A consultation on the future of the Children’s Centre service in Somerset closed at the end of October. Many people complained to me that the form of consultation, namely by questionnaire, was closed and misleading, designed to elicit responses to support a preconceived conclusion. A fortnight after it closed, Councillors and Children’s Centre staff were sent a document with proposals for the service, at 6pm on a Friday. I have always had an intense dislike for seeing bad news snuck out just before the weekend when it is impossible to feedback for 2 and a half days. It strikes me as cowardly. The document received was so opaque as to what was proposed as to be useless. The only reason I understood what was planned is because, as a County Councillor, I received a private briefing from the person in charge of the review. In that I was clearly told that the Bishops Lydeard Children’s Centre would be closing to be replaced by a remnant service operating out of the village hall on one day a week. When asked what the Council was planning to do with the 4 year old, £200,000 Bishops Lydeard Children’s Centre, I was told that discussions had been held with the pre-school with a view to them moving from the village hall to the former Children’s Centre. They were apparently very happy at the prospect. I was surprised then to find that no-one at the pre-school knew anything about such a proposal. Council staff have since accepted that no such discussions have taken place. I have repeatedly advised the County Council that the lease for the building in Bishops Lydeard is very tightly drawn. The building is permitted for use solely as a Sure Start Children’s Centre. It cannot be used for anything else. If the County Council wishes to stop using it as such, the lease provides for two possible outcomes. Either the building must be demolished or handed over free-of-charge to the charity that runs the Village Hall. At this point I must declare a conflict of interest. I am a Trustee of that charity. While, with that hat on, I would view such a gift as incredibly generous, it is clearly not a good use of tax-payers’ money and that is one of the reasons I am against the proposal.

The Children’s Centres do invaluable work, drawing together a number of support functions. Since the closure was announced, I have been inundated with messages of support from members of the community who have been supported by the Children’s Centre. The word ‘lifeline’ comes up repeatedly. Operating a peripatetic service in the village hall on one day a week is a very poor substitute for the 5-days-per-week service currently offered in the dedicated building.

Also in my Division is Brock House in Norton Fitzwarren. Brock House performs a very special function in the community, also supporting many families of the Royal Marines based at 40 Commando. Collectively the Royal Marines have been through difficult times in recent years losing 14 of their number in successive tours of Iraq and Afghanistan with several dozen suffering life-changing injuries. Staff and volunteers from Barnardos, who run this Centre have operated a 24 hour support line for Royal Marines and their families. From the inscrutable proposals document issued by the Council it does not appear that the Children’s Centre in Norton Fitzwarren is to be closed although it does appear that Barnardos will lose the contract to run it. When I was briefed by officers on the proposals, I was clearly told that the management of all the Children’s Centres would return to the County Council. The charities and other service providers would all be dispensed with from April 2014. It is therefore very likely that the continuity of staff, despite TUPE, will be broken and the bonds of trust built up between staff and users, including military families, will be broken. Together with the Chair of the Advisory Board at Brock House, I asked Councillor Nicholson and senior officers yesterday, why the Council was taking back control in-house when the direction of travel at the Council is firmly towards commissioning. They didn’t seem to know that this is what was planned. They also seemed to believe that the remnant service proposed at Bishops Lydeard would comprise 3 days per week, not 1 as I had been told. To be blunt, these proposals are a mess. At one point in yesterday’s meeting, the three people in the room couldn’t even agree on an answer to one of my questions. It is clear to me that these proposals are ill-formed and exceptionally poorly communicated. Until I told them so, the staff at Bishops Lydeard, who had read this awful proposal document, had no idea that they were to be booted out of their centre. These proposals need a fundamental rethink, taking into account all of the centre-specific factors such as those I have set out here. There is no way that a sensible and responsible decision can be taken on Monday as planned. I am therefore calling for a pause in this process, a halt to this rushed nonsense before serious mistakes are made. I am also calling for the service to be left with the current providers until such time as the County Council is ready to go back out to tender on the basis of a carefully-redesigned service. It is a nonsense to fire the current providers, bring the service back in house for a period of perhaps several months and then retender in many cases to the same organisations.

I call upon all right-thinking Councillors to back this proposal.

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