A Press release today from Somerset County Council following a key meeting on the projected closure of Children’s centres in Somerset claiming “More resources, more consultation” has been branded a sham by opponents and the portfolio holder is ‘to be held to account’ by campaigners.
“More money for the front-line and more opportunities for people to have their say on Children’s Centre Services” was the spin put on todays decision taken by Cllr Frances Nicholson (Con,Dulverton & Exmoor) and “.. to reduce spending on management and administration and increase spending on the front-line by restructuring the service on an area basis.”
“I have decided….”
“I want to be absolutely clear that what I have decided today is not about the future of individual centres,” said Cllr Nicholson. “What I have decided is what I told Full Council last week – that I have split the decision – and this is just the first part. I have decided today to restructure the service so that less money is spent on management and admin, and more is spent on the front-line services that people need and value. We would not create a new service that spends more than half of its budget on management, admin and buildings. I believe the vast majority of people will support this and if we are to get more help to the families that need it most, things need to change.In terms of individual centres, we will be revising plans and carrying out local consultation, appropriate to the significance of any proposed change, before any decisions about individual centres are taken.Until this has happened I cannot speculate on what the outcomes will be. But we can reassure families that every community that currently has Children’s Centre activities will continue to have them – either provided from the building they are used to using or elsewhere in the local community.At this stage we cannot tell you when we will be in a position to share proposals or start consultations, but we will keep people informed.”
However, as protesters gathered outside County Hall ahead of today’s meeting the message from opponents was that the cuts that the Tories are planning to make to management and admin posts will significantly impact upon the ‘quality’ of County Council services.
“Shame on her” Say Workers
A spokesperson for the workers affected said “The proposed new County Council manager model includes five area posts which have a 0 – 19 remit to support the early help strategy, therefore County Council ‘savings’ are also being used to shore up other parts of children’s services. County Council services have been improving since the 2011 restructure, and whilst it is good to have additional front line staff, we also need the admin and leadership support to maintain those improvements. The main findings/recommendations from ALL Ofsted inspections of children’s centres in Somerset point to a lack of strategic vision, governance, leadership and partnership working by the local authority at a strategic rather than operational level, yet this is where they are making the managements cuts. We are not aware that there are any plans to have a strategic lead appointed to support County Councils to improve further in the future. How one person can make such a a decision having been advised by officers with no operational understanding of children’s centres? Shame on her!”
Labour Questions the democratic process
Labour councillors are also questioning the democratic process. How can it be right that a decision which could have such a significant impact for children and families is being made by one person? Why is it not going to the Cabinet or Full Council? Even at this advanced stage, there is still no information available on how Cllr Nicholson envisages services will continue to be delivered.
Bridgwater Councillor Ian Tucker (Labour Bridgwater,Dunwear) attended the Children’s Centre Advisory meeting this morning and reported as follows “Amongst other things we obviously discussed the changes SCC are proposing and Andrew Hinchcliff of SCC described what form the split decision will take. As stated in the press release the first part will concern staff, i.e. the managers and admin staff who will be cut. The consultation will be internal only and the public will not have a look in. The second part will then deal with how the service will be run when the public will be consulted particularly, as stated in the press release, where individual centres are affected. Now how will any public consultation be any good when County have already got rid of senior qualified staff, leaving very few options left!? In fact in my view they will engineer the option they want.”
“No Further Forward”
Cllr Tucker Continued “At first sight it may look very good with more front line staff, however all 15 people on the advisory meeting this morning were very concerned about the loss of so many qualified staff which will significantly impact on the quality of County Council services. After Cllr Nicholson’s delay in making this decision we are no further forward. We still have an inadequate report, a complete lack of stakeholder consultation to date and many very worried parents concerned about the future of their centres.”
Stop Closures Campaign to ‘hold her to it’
Some of those worried parents were busy making their feelings known outside today’s meeting. Sophie Tree of the ‘Stop Childrens Centres in Somerset Closing’ campaign that mounted the demo said “Thanks to everyone who attended county hall today. We claimed a small victory on ITV news after Cllr Nicholson categorically said no children’s centres would be de-designated in her decision today. Remember all of this would have been done, dusted and rubber stamped by 18th November if you hadn’t written, emailed and protested because the original decision was to ‘de-designate’ 18 centres. We need to stay vigilant and make sure the rest of the process is as open as possible and that public consultation does indeed take place before major changes are made – Nicholson has promised this and we will hold her to it.”