Threat to children's centres a social "time bomb"
PLANS to close children's centres in Somerset have been described as a "ticking bomb" and have sparked serious concerns about the future of children's services at the Balsam Centre in Wincanton and its satellite branch in Castle Cary.
Somerset County Council is consulting people who use the current 41 centres. Under the proposals, 14 would remain exclusively as children's centres and up to 13 would be shared with other services. Remaining centres would be at risk of closure.
Ofsted rated the authority's child protection services as inadequate earlier this year.
District councillor Henry Hobhouse, who fought to secure a children's centre in Castle Cary, said the loss of vital parenting advice and moral support provided by local centres could result in a serious long-term rise in crime and antisocial behaviour.
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"The most fundamentally important part of a child's life is the first 18 months. These centres equip young people with parenting skills that could ultimately stop their children going off the rails," he said.
"There is also a great social side. New families visit these centres, discuss their problems and are offered ways of working them out - it's like an extended family.
"The problem is that many of the benefits are not quickly identifiable so it's an easy cut for the council to make in the short-term."
Parent Chris Hill has started a petition to safeguard children's centre services at the Balsam Centre. He fears that the county council's questionnaire will find areas such as Yeovil, Bridgwater and Taunton to have a greater need despite the high demand for services in the local area.
The petition can be signed in shops throughout Wincanton and also on Facebook at Save Wincanton's Children's Centre.
So far, more than 500 people have put their name to the campaign.
Mr Hill, who works as a teacher, explained that support from the Balsam Centre saved his family when his wife was suffering with depression following complications during pregnancy five years ago.
"Our family probably wouldn't be together now if it wasn't for the Balsam Centre," he said.
"We are not classed as a family in need because I work full time in a good job, own my own home and am not known to social services. However, during the time of my wife's pregnancy and in the first months of my daughter's life we were in serious need of help.
"The Balsam Centre was amazing and I will never be able to repay that gratitude. They saved our family and I know they have done the same for countless families, and will go to the ends of the earth to help and support anyone in need."
Mr Hill has written to local councillors and MP David Heath, stressing the value of local children's services and urging decision makers to take into account the impact of hundreds of new families moving into new developments in the local area.
He has also questioned the integrity of Somerset County council's survey, suggesting that some of the questions are loaded and that very few service users have been made aware of the consultation.
"The council seems very unwilling to publicise it," he said.
"I feel they have already made their decision and are just trying to validate it."
Tim Carroll, chairman of the board of trustees at the Balsam Centre, said: "Our future is in the hands of the county council.
"All of the courses we run from the centre are oversubscribed, so the demand is definitely there, and last year we expanded the nursery provision, which is a core part of our activities.
"There would be a significant effect if there was any change in the situation.
"We appreciate the support that people show us. We do urge people to make their representations not just through the survey but also through their councillors."
A spokesman for Somerset County Council said its consultation has been promoted through children's centres and children's services staff, and that views were also being sought through focus groups and a telephone survey of a sample of families.
Councillor Frances Nicholson, cabinet member for children and families, said: "No decisions have been made. We want as many people as possible to give us their feedback so we can understand their thoughts and priorities.
"We need to make sure children's centre services are organised and operating in a way that gets the support to the people who need it most in the most effective and efficient way."
The consultation can be viewed online at www.somersetconsults.org.uk