Marlborough's Sure Start Children's Centre set to close in austerity shake-up
It looks certain that Marlborough's Sure Start Children's Centre, the Corner House Centre in the George Lane car park, will be closed - or 'de-registered' - in the near future. This is clearly forecast in the papers accompanying Wiltshire Council's consultation on the future use of the thirty children's centres across the county.
Now available on the Wiltshire Council website, the consultation document states: "Marlborough: There are other buildings in the community that are suitable for delivery of children's centre services. The current building could be offered to the community for alternative use." It does not specify what those 'other buildings' are.
It then names Pewsey's centre as the 'closest children's centre which will provide support in the future' for Marlborough families. The consultation has the sub-title: 'Focusing support towards vulnerable families'.
The document outlines a 'proposed future delivery model' for Wiltshire's thirty Sure Start Children's Centres, but it is not clear how much of a real consultation this is.
It starts using appropriate conditional language: "From July 2016, it is proposed that..." But it quickly changes gear using indicative language "...services will be delivered...", "...will provide support [as above]..." and "All children's centres will work together..."
The contracts for running Wiltshire's children's centres run out in July 2016. At present four charities run them - this was Wiltshire Council's 'new model' back in 2010 when they put the centres out to tender.
That was designed to take management away from the local charities which had set the Sure Start centres up, and put larger organisations in charge. Only one local charity the Rise Trust won a contract - for three centres around Chippenham.
Marlborough's centre has been run by the London based charity 4Children - which runs sixteen centres in Wiltshire.
The consultation document says there are 1,085 under fives in the area - 736 of them registered with the centre. But in the list of centres in the county's deprivation ranking Marlborough comes 24th out the 30.
Apart from deprivation, the other statutory condition the government set for establishing centres was the number of under fives in an area. As it happens Marlborough has almost twice as many under fives as Pewsey (and will have many more when the Salisbury Road development is built.) But Pewsey is ninth on the county deprivation scale.
Marlborough will be the only town in the county's eastern sector to lose its centre - across the county twelve other centres will go.
The new model will concentrate on supporting under-fives in the community: "Where children's centre buildings are de-registered, services will be delivered by staff in the community through outreach support."
Wiltshire Council has found various supporting statements for a community model without centres. But it admits that austerity has been a factor: "Along with other local authorities across the country, Wiltshire Council has significantly less funding available due to reductions in central government funding. We therefore need to find ways to continue to meet the needs of young children and their families through re-shaping service delivery whilst looking at opportunities to save money."
Politically this is a sensitive area of policy. Sure Start was one of the very few Labour government policies that Conservatives backed and supported during the coalition government. In February 2012 Conservative MP Tony Baldry wanted the money for Sure Start to be ring-fenced or for the centres to be treated like academies and funded directly by the government.
Devizes MP Claire Perry was a member of the All-party Parliamentary Group on Sure Start Children's Centres whose aim was "To champion the good work of children's centres..."
In March 2013, after a visit to two 4Children centres in Devizes, Mrs Perry said: " I was delighted when 4Children were able to take over the running of the Children’s Centres in Wiltshire [sic] and my visits to two of those Centres confirmed it was a wise decision...The wealth of varied and tailored support on offer at both centres was clearly invaluable and it is reassuring to know that parents in my Constituency can have access to these important services”.
After July 2016 it is unlikely that such a service will still be offered to young families in Marlborough. It is doubtful that all those smiling faces pictured in the consultation document will still be smiling when they have to get on a bus to the nearest centre.
NOTE ONE: The consultation is on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting of the Marlborough Area Board - September 29, in the Town Hall at 7.00pm.
NOTE TWO: Before it became a Sure Start Children's Centre the Corner House building used to be Marlborough's Tourist Information Centre. Through a community asset transfer it could perhaps be a town council run tourist information centre and become part of the moves to make Marlborough a 'coach friendly' town - and to welcome tourists.
NOTE THREE: Wiltshire Council representatives will be meeting with interested Marlborough area parents at the Corner House centre on October 14 - 10.30am to 12noon. Children welcome.