THE future of children’s services across Somerset is up in the air as a new consultation has been launched that would see the number of centres reduced from 24 to just eight.

Currently, there are 24 Sure Start centres across the county, but under new plans, this number could be reduced to eight as the council plans to deliver services differently.

Sure Start centres provide services including information and advice, flexible child care and support to get people into work and training.

The services are currently divided into Getset children’s centres for ages 0-4 and family support centres for children 0-19-years-old.

Somerset County Council launched the consultation on Monday, September 25, and hopes to hear as many views as possible on the “emotive” subject.

Cabinet member for children and families, Councillor Frances Nicholson, said: “We know the subject of change to this support, especially children’s centre services, is very emotive and we want as many people as possible to share their views.

“Our driving principle is to get support to those who need it most as early as possible so it can have the biggest impact.

Buildings don’t support people, staff and the support they deliver do – the services will remain, it is how and where they are delivered that may change.

“By working differently, we believe we can help children and families achieve better outcomes and make our money go further.”

In Taunton Deane, there are currently six centres: Acorns, The Hollies, Hillside, Brock House, Wellington, and Bishops Lydeard, and two “delivery points”, The Villages and Fledglings.

The new plan would see Acorns and Hillside become the two main ‘family centres’ and the others ‘de-designated’.

In Sedgemoor, there are four centres: Victoria Park, Hamp, Sydenham, and Highbridge, with Nether Stowey, Eastover, Woolavington, The Valley and Octopus used as delivery points.

Sydenham and Highbridge would be used as the main centres in the new plans, with the others de-designated.

In West Somerset there are three centres, Williton, Alcombe, and Little Vikings, with Wiveliscombe and Dulverton used as delivery points.

Williton would be the only main family centre in West Somerset under the proposal.

In South Somerset there are six centres: one in Chard, three in Yeovil, one in Ilchester and one in Wincanton.

Reckleford Children’s Centre in Yeovil would become themain centre.

Five other centres in Mendip would be reduced to two family centres. 

The centres first came into use in 2005 when 41 were set up as part of a government programme to help families in more deprived areas give their children the best start in life.

Decisions taken in 2014 saw 17 other centres ‘de-designated’ – although the council says that some continue to provide some children’s centre services and others have been taken on by schools or nurseries to provide spaces.

Some county councillors fear the consultation is a way to close down children’s centres that are well used.

Labour’s Leigh Redman said: “Any closure of a children’s centre is a bad thing. I urge people to take part in this consultation and make their views heard.

“Somerset County Council need to provide evidence that these services are not being used before any children’s centre is closed.”

In Wellington, one councillor says he is concerned to see that the successful work patterns shown throughout the town in the last few years are under threat, but appreciates there are some good ideas within the council’s proposal.

Cllr Andrew Govier said: “I am really concerned that there are already being changes made that are reducing the level of family support services in the town.

“Staff at the centre are being asked to cover a far greater area with some being expected to do work in West Somerset and Sedgemoor.

“We have a really committed team working out of the Wellington centre and I am disappointed that the successful work patterns that have had such a positive impact in the last few years are under threat. “There are some good ideas in the county’s proposals.

“They are looking to achieve a closer working relationship between early year’s health staff and children’s centre staff.

“This is something that already happens in Wellington through the One Team and it is a good model of working.

“My concern is that without a suitable building for these professionals to work together in, the level of service to local families could deteriorate.”

A number of sessions are taking place across the county for people to voice their views.

On Wednesday, October 11, a session is taking place from 10.30am until 6.30pm at The Hub in Minehead, and on Friday, October 13, a similar session is taking place at the same time at Hillside Children’s Centre in Taunton.

The information gathered will help shape final proposals that will be considered by councillors early in 2018.

The consultation runs until December 1 and can be found online at familysupportandchildrenscentres.