Marlborough children’s centre – part of the successful Sure Start programme – was closed by Wiltshire Council in 2016 – and replaced by sessions for mothers and very young children in the town’s library and the promise of one-to-one visits. That austerity round saw thirteen of the county’s original 30 centres closed down – now Pewsey’s centre is to be closed.
In a bid to save £250,000 in 2019-2020, Wiltshire Council is getting rid of six more children centre buildings. The headline to the announcement (April 30) was a hard sell: “More popular community venues to be used to provide children’s centre services”. With ‘more popular’ being an unsubstantiated claim.
The six buildings were described as ‘underused’. Five of them – including Pewsey – ‘will be offered for much needed childcare provision’. The building in Salisbury will be handed back to the landlord.
The original Council report described the Pewsey centre as a ‘Purpose built building on Pewsey school site shared with Puddleducks Pre-school’. It judged it to be in a ‘Less deprived area and [with] very little use of the centre by the public.’ The plan was to ‘Offer [it] to the onsite childcare provider and possibly retain a contact room at the back.’
The Council say they want to ‘focus funding on frontline staff’. The Council’s cabinet also agreed ‘to explore other potential venues for children’s centre services in all the towns including Cricklade which was specifically discussed in the meeting’.
Children’s centre services for families with under-5s provide a range of support and advice around parenting, home learning environment, domestic abuse support, employment and training opportunities and healthy lifestyles. In the past they have provided a fixed place to which parents can go at any time.
The announcement said: “It is hoped more families will use the service by moving into venues families already attend, as well as offering programmes in libraries, leisure centres and community hubs.”
“The different locations will help more families access the services, particularly in areas of deprivation. There will also be more information online to meet changing demand for how people find out about services and programmes.”
Laura Mayes, cabinet member for children’s services made this claim: “We know some families would rather visit a community venue than a children’s centre building, or the centre may be too far from where we [sic] live. Rather than spend money on costly underused buildings, we want to invest in the staff and the services to give young children the opportunities to have a good start in life.”
There has been a strong campaign to retain the centres – especially in Westbury. This has led to the postponement of the closure of Westbury’s centre until the autumn. But left a great deal of uncertainty about future provision in the town.
When plans were first announced to move more services to libraries and gyms, the Council’s commissioner, Lucy-Ann Bryant said: “It’s a win-win. We want families to access libraries to improve literacy and reading. But we also want to improve fitness and consider healthy lifestyles so we want to encourage that by having services they already use in these spaces.”
The leader of the campaign in Westbury, Nadine Crook, looked at the results of the 2016 closure Warminster: “When the council closed Warminster’s children’s centre they made promises about what they would provide in other community buildings but they did not keep these promises.”
“All the groups apart from one stopped after the centre closed. Now families struggle to access the help they need unless they are able to get referred by health visitors and other professionals. We don’t want to see the same happen for Westbury.”
There are, of course, vital safeguarding issues when such groups are held in public spaces rather than in buildings used exclusively for children’s centres.
The Marlborough area service that replaced the children’s centre at the Corner House in the George Lane car park, is contracted to the children’s charity Spurgeons. In December, backed by a survey, the national charity warned of a ‘parenting crisis’ if cuts reduce support any further.
Marlborough.news is trying to find out how many mothers attend the library sessions in Marlborough and the number of home visits actually being made.