TWO out of every three Sure Start children's centre in Somerset are to be downgraded.

The county council has voted today (Monday) to reduce the number of centre's from 24 to just eight.

But it says the 16 buildings no longer operating as children's centres will "still offer early childhood services including education and nursery places".

The lead councillor for children and families claims the changes will not lead to a reduction in support.

The council approved two recommendations that pave the way for a new service that aims to make what it says is support for families and children as accessible as possible for those who need it most.

The decisions follow public consultation in the autumn and will bring together the council’s getset service – which includes children’s centre services - and the support offered by health visitors and school nurses, with even more emphasis on delivering support in community venues and people’s homes.

Today’s cabinet meeting attracted significant opposition from members of the public before councillors voted unanimously to proceed with a proposal to start creating the new service.

They also supported the transfer of public health nursing staff to the council, subject to a full business case and implementation plan being agreed.

Cabinet member for children and families Cllr Frances Nicholson said: “These plans are all about making it easier for people to get the support they need so we can prevent small problems becoming big ones, and that is something we all want.

“This support is important and valued and I thank everyone who took part in the consultation.

"The feedback has helped our thinking and highlighted areas where more work is needed, but we firmly believe that these proposals are still the best way forward for families and children across the county.

“The changing status of buildings does not mean a reduction in support and the hundreds of activities that are there now will carry on.

"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 County Hall spokesman said there are nearly 300 regular support services and activities being delivered in nearly 150 locations across the county, the majority in community venues. Under the plans these will continue and the council would look to develop what’s on offer.

He added that universal and targeted support, such as health visitor and family support services, will also continue in community venues and in people homes.

School Nurses will continue to run health and well-being clinics in our secondary schools.

And nurseries currently operating from children’s centre buildings will continue to operate, and in some areas be expanded and enhanced with the creation of an estimated 150 places.

Somerset Partnership NHS Trust is currently contracted by the council to provide public health nursing.

The contract expires at the end of March next year and the council is legally obliged to put the service out to the competitive market again or bring it in-house.

Officers have recommended the in-house option as the best way to bring the services together into one organisation to work seamlessly together.

Cabinet Member for public health and wellbeing Cllr Christine Lawrence said: “There was always going to be change and we have looked at the options carefully and considered what has worked elsewhere.

"Bringing these services together is the best thing to do in terms of supporting children and families, and bringing them in-house is the best way to achieve that.

“We understand that some of the public health nursing staff have concerns - where there is change there is always concern – but we will be working closely with the partnership on next steps and there are no plans to change anyone’s terms and conditions as a result of the transfer.”