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Has Wiltshire Council forgotten about localism and the ‘Big Society’?

Wiltshire Council’s decision to cut the number of management organisations for the county’s thirty Sure Start centres from fourteen to four outside providers is having a devastating effect on voluntary groups in the old Kennet District Council area.

Three of the four management organisations for the new contracts are national bodies based outside the county.

Already Voluntary Action Kennet (VAK) which set-up and ran the Pewsey Sure Start centre, has closed for business. And the Rural Needs Initiative (RNI) charity which set-up and ran the Marlborough’s Corner House centre and Tidworth’s Windmill Hill centre, will close by the end of the year.

Working with Pewsey parish council, VAK did all the hard work setting up the centre and successfully completing purpose-built premises which were only opened in January this year.  In 2010-2011 VAK received £117,450 of government funds from Wiltshire Council for Pewsey Sure Start centre.

VAK’s information shop in Pewsey will be closed within the next few months and services moved to the new library.   Last year Wiltshire Council paid VAK £8,870 towards the information shop.

The closure announcement on VAK’s website ends: “We are very sad we will not be around to continue to support our rural communities.”

[See also our companion story: “Fears for the future of Marlborough’s Sure Start centre are averted.”]

Coinciding with the changes in Sure Start management, the Council also made a thirteen per cent reduction in funding for all voluntary organisations providing specialist help for under-fives in the county. And a fifty per cent cut in funding for Home Start Kennet which supports families with young children across the Marlborough and Tidworth areas, including army families.

Apart from achieving economies of scale, the Council’s policy of ‘clustering’ centres for the tender process was aimed at ensuring ‘greater cohesion with partner agencies.’

Yet Kate Easter, chair of Marlborough centre’s advisory board, says RNI had done “a great job in getting services on side and working together.”

She’s optimistic about the new regime:  “Change is a good thing if it’s managed well.” And she’s very positive about the impact 4Children’s larger network and wider experience will bring to east Wiltshire’s children centres.

RNI was started in 1997 by Kennet District Council and a range of partners to combat the isolation of rural families with very young children.  In 2007 RNI was asked by Wiltshire Council to set-up and run the Marlborough and Tidworth children’s centres. 

In 2010-2011 RNI received £317, 595 of government funds from Wiltshire Council to manage the two centres.

RNI and VAK submitted a joint tender in 2010 to run Marlborough and Pewsey centres which had already been formed into a ‘cluster’ by the Council. And RNI pursued a lone bid for the Tidworth centre.  Neither bid was successful.

In a statement to Marlborough News Online, RNI’s trustees said: “After reviewing options in this current economic climate, (we) have taken the difficult decision to move towards the closure of the charity later this year.”

The trustees “feel that the original aims of the RNI are now further embedded in national and local policy.” And they are fully supportive of the new regime – and wish 4Children well particularly “as they will be building on the strong foundations laid by RNI.”

Indeed it can be said that Marlborough News Online has found nothing but support for the new management – so strong is the belief that Sure Start is doing a really valuable job in the Marlborough community.

However, it seems that the call by the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, for councils to provide more support to local voluntary groups, came too late for the Rural Needs Initiative and Voluntary Action Kennet. 

Pickles said that while local authorities are looking to manage on reduced budgets that they should not ‘disproportionately’ cut funding to charities and voluntary groups.

His call came one week after the start of the new financial year – when the budgets and contracts for Wiltshire’s Sure Start in 2011-2012 had been fixed.

[Financial figures revealed through Freedom of Information requests.]

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