It’s approaching three months since Children’s Services Cabinet Member Frances Nicholson agreed to my suggested ‘pause’ in the programme of Change for Children’s Centres. She split her decision in two, determining that the strategic direction ought to be approved, focusing management on five clusters across the County. The detail of what would happen at individual centres would be deferred pending a further process of consultation.
I represent the Lydeard Division, home to two Children’s Centres, the purpose-built Bishops Lydeard Children’s Centre and the dual-purpose Brock House in Norton Fitzwarren, which also contains a 40-place day-care nursery. You may recall that the previous plan, proposed the closure of the existing 5-day/week Bishops Lydeard facility and its replacement with an operation on one day a week in the adjacent village hall. The people who designed this plan appeared to have failed to understand or ignored the most basic information, such as the fact that the lease on the purpose-built, 4-year-old, £250,000 Bishops Lydeard building forbade its use as anything other than a SureStart Children’s Centre. Until I brought this to their attention they appeared to have no idea that they would either have to give away this building free of charge or demolish it. They also appeared unaware that the village hall was fully booked. So it was to try and address these and other shortcomings that the ‘pause’ was announced.
What’s happened since?
The voluntary bodies, like Barnardos, that run a number of the centres across Somerset were all employed on contracts that end on 31st March 2014. I and others called for these bodies to be kept on at least temporarily until the new structure was established. The early signs were promising but it came to nothing as the County Council offered the bodies substantially less than the existing funding. In the case of Brock House at Norton Fitzwarren, Barnardo’s were offered a budget 60% less than that currently provided. It was not therefore surprising that they were unable to accept. I am led to believe that this reduced budget will also pertain once these Children’s Centres are brought back in-house to Somerset County Council from next month. In all of this, Frances Nicholson has pledged to protect frontline services and even to employ a further 30 frontline staff across Somerset. I have totted up the total employment costs of the frontline staff at Brock House and the figure is substantially more than the £100,000 budget now on offer. It is therefore impossible to reconcile this cut in funding with the undertaking to protect the frontline. Either services will be cut or the in-house budget will be increased, which begs the question, why was Barnardo’s not offered that same level of funding? So, still many questions to answer and I’m not convinced that the promised consultation will be able to answer them. I asked this question at Scrutiny Committee last Friday. The administration didn’t even attempt to answer the question.
Finally, If you have doubts about what Children’s Centres are there for, I suggest that you go and take a look for yourself. The breadth of services on offer is quite eye-opening.