At todays meeting of the Tory controlled Somerset County Council Executive, Councillors voted unanimously to close two thirds of Somerset’s Childrens Centres and at the same time agreed the transfer of health visitors and school nurses from the NHS to a new Family Support Service, run by the county council.
Angry protesters including health workers, Trades Unionists, Labour Party members, children and a person in an inflatable baby costume,braved the cold to greet councillors on their arrival at Tauton’s County Hall.
The Unite union, which organised the demonstration, said the changes risked “wrecking a great service” with 24 Sure Start centres replaced by eight “family centres” which will co-ordinate work in the surrounding areas and the remaining 16 buildings expected to be used by nurseries.Councillors also agreed to bring the employment of the county’s health visitors and school nurses in-house from April 2019.
Somerset County Council’s cabinet member for children, Cllr Frances Nicholson (Conservative, Exmoor & Dulverton) , said “I understand that some people are anxious, but this is about doing things better, and the next steps will be taken carefully and at the right pace.”
A Sad Day for Democracy.
Protesters branded the outcome a ‘Sad Day for Democracy’.
Phase One represents the de-designation of 16 of the county’s children’s centres. These centres will lose their Sure Start status. Many of them will become nothing more than extra space for nurseries or schools and will provide no Early Year’s services. The move is explained by the council as a way to extend services out into the wider community and save money by no longer maintaining expensive buildings. However, the Council also states that the buildings will not be closed.
Phase Two is the integration of Public Health Nursing in to Somerset County Council and out of the NHS.
The cabinet meeting was very well attended with interested members of the public having to be accommodated in a separate room, where the audio from the meeting was relayed to them.
Three members of the public and six health visitors asked questions regarding Phase One and Two.
Labour asks for explanations
Labour’s Kathrine See attended the meeting to question the cabinet over the cost of the consultation and how it could be justified when the outcome had not impacted on the councils plans. Over 1000 people responded to the consultation, the overwhelming majority of whom stated that they wished for services to be delivered through children’s centres. Kathrine asked how the act of removing the Sure Start status was anticipated to generate savings if the buildings were to remain open.
Kathrine then read the members an extract from the Frank Field report 2010 which was commissioned by the coalition government and a paragraph from the West Somerset 2014 Local Infrastructure Plan To 2032. Both documents stressed the importance of Sure Start Children’s Centres and state that they are at the heart of Government strategy to deliver better outcomes for young children and their families. Kathrine then asked the Cabinet to explain how with rising child poverty and decreasing social mobility such a drastic shift in the direction of travel could be justified.
However, the Cabinet unanimously voted to adopt the proposals for Phase One.
Phase Two saw six Health Visitors bring their concerns to the table. These were quickly dispensed. Leader of the Council David Fothergill proposed just two options: 1) Bring Public Health Nursing provision in house or 2) Look for private tenders for the service even alluding to the possibility of outsourcing to Virgin Care. A third option of leaving Public Health Nursing where it is, in the NHS, was not mentioned.
The Cabinet then unanimously voted to adopt the proposals for Phase Two.
Kathrine See commentated that “This is a very sad day not only for the families and young children of Somerset but also for democracy itself. A public consultation was held, the result of which was clear, yet the Council continues with its plans unabashed. The Sure Start centres were a flagship policy of the Labour Government and represented a concrete commitment to the people of Somerset to provide Early Years Services. My fear is that services will become dispersed and ultimately disappear altogether. Some areas of our County are suffering from extreme levels of deprivation and the worst social mobility levels in the entire country. We have ever increasing food bank use, which clearly means that there are many vulnerable families out there. How will they know where to look for help and support when our Sure Start Centres are gone?”