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SCC Threatens Closure of Children's Services at the Balsam Centre

Thursday 10 October 2013, 02:15
By Chris Hill

The children's centre at The Balsam Centre, Wincanton

I am concerned at County Council's plans to axe all but 14 of the 41 children's centres in Somerset. This puts our Balsam Centre Children's Centre at almost certain risk of closure in March. The County Council have not announced any of their intended plans, and will not do so until the final list is drawn up. I am 99% sure that the Balsam Centre's centre will be one of the ones to close.

A copy of a letter I sent to the Town Council, Nick Colbert, Anna Groskop and David Heath MP is reproduced at the bottom of this article.

What has astounded me since I sent the letters is the amount of people who are blissfully unaware that a valuable resource is going to potentially close.

The County Council has had to make cuts (as has everyone. It will mean that Somerset's budget will be slashed from £300 million to £200 million at a time when services are already at breaking point); however, they are trying to justify the closure of the Balsam Centre's Children Centre on the grounds that there is no need for it, namely there are no families in need in Wincanton.

The Shed, the largest multi-purpose room at The Balsam Centre, Wincanton

As you will read in the letter, they council are using data from 2010 that does not include the new developments in Wincanton which are going to bring 100s of families, some of which will have needs in the area (the data in question still does not include these developments...or future developments).

To add insult to injury I have been informed that Somerset County Council has been "giving away" 10s of millions of pounds to companies like Barrett Homes and Yarlington; companies that had failed to complete contracts with the associated 106 agreements (monies given to the local areas to pay for the additional infrastructure, schools etc). The money from the 106 agreements has not been paid, yet these companies have received payments from SCC, approved by the councillors the electorate voted for (a subsidiary of Barrett were given £13million by SCC in this way). That is the best part of the £25 million I have been told they need to cut every year for a 4 year period.

All of the information I have gathered has come from sources outside of the Balsam Centre due to restrictions placed upon the staff by SCC. This is appalling. The other information came from a leaked report which was on the BBC news website.

I was interviewed by Transition Vision to talk about this situation. You can see the interview right here, below.

If you can help fight this threat of closure, please do. You can contact me by emailing .

As mentioned earlier, here is the letter I sent to local authorities and MPs. I would like to encourage everyone to write to David Heath and Anna Groskop to express their own personal concerns.

I have contacted you, in the hope that you can offer your support to help ensure that the Balsam Centre Children's Centre in Wincanton is not closed down or their services reduced by Somerset County Council, and that it remains a Statutory service with no changes or reductions in the services they provide to ALL families.

I contact you as an extremely angry and upset parent and Balsam Centre user. Since a report was published on the BBC news website on Thursday I have been trying to investigate the situation. I have tried to contact the Balsam Centre staff, but they have not been able to give me any further details at the instruction of Somerset County Council. This is outrageous as it is us, the community, that it will directly affect.

The County Council has issued a Consultation Document which is totally flawed and worded in a very misleading way. This consultation is not allowed to be published by the Balsam Centre Staff nor is it easy to find on SCC website. The questions are extremely leading; prescriptive in nature and can only be answered online with multiple choice tick boxes that have to be checked. There is little space for you to share your views and it is extremely clear how SCC are going to manipulate the answers to say that the community does not want or need the Balsam Centre.

SCC's reasoning seems to be that there are very few, if any families in need in the Wincanton and Castle Cary area so the funding is to be spent in Taunton, Bridgewater and Yeovil (a reduction from 41 centres currently to just 14). The Data that SCC has used is totally flawed and 3 years out of date.

The data they use is from an organisation that takes its information from the Office for National Statistics. The most recent available data was published in March 2011 but collected in 2010. In this data it quotes that there are 15% of families that fall below the 60% earnings median bench mark. It does not take into consideration the new developments in the area (New Barns 200+ affordable and Social housing - The development off Common Road which has a considerable number of affordable family homes - or the fact that the MOD have just agreed to purchase 150 of these homes to house their service families that are to return from Germany).

In fact when you look at the information neither of these developments show up on the system as they were not built. All these new developments will bring in many new, young and needy families to Wincanton. A proportion of these are families that have been relocated from troubled area of Yeovil, Bridgewater etc...

The people making these decisions clearly have no social conscience nor do they represent the views and needs of the communities of Wincanton.

In the recent OFSTED report for the Balsam Centre they were praised for the work they did, how they were able to address the needs of the community and users of the centre. It was also suggested by OFSTED that the centre does a fantastic job identifying families at risk and in need and was able to put in place support for those families. The areas for further development included more outreach work to help rural families in need; now SCC are planning on "closing" the Centre, for which there is a clear need.

What SCC has not considered is the issue of rural deprivation and the isolated families. They are implying that because statistically, average house prices are above average (based on sales data) there are no families in need; however you only need a handful of expensive homes in an area to push up this figure giving a false picture (social housing never comes to the market to bring the stats down).

The All Party Parliamentary Sure Start Group in 2013 wrote the following: "All authorities are working hard to protect services" - clearly SCC is not. "Children's Centres should continue to provide advice, support and services to ALL families with children under 5". "All prenatal services should be provided under one roof with midwifery, health visiting and Children's centre services all being accessed from the children's centre."

This is exactly what the Balsam Centre is doing, brilliantly, and also what the community wants. There is clear and definite need so why the hell are SCC, with the help of the people we elected to serve our community, doing all they can to destroy child protection, community cohesion and support the most amazing asset the area has for its families.

On a personal note. The Balsam Centre and their amazing team most definitely saved my family, because they can offer a joined up service and can access support from a whole range of services from health visitors to councillors. I can promise you that our family would have fallen apart if it was not for them, my wife was isolated and on the verge of severe depression after spending the best part of 5 months bed bound due to severe pelvic problems during pregnancy. We are not classed as a family in need, because I work full time in a good job, own my own home and are not known to social services; however, during the time of my wife's pregnancy and in the first months of my daughter's life we were in serious need of help. The Balsam Centre was amazing. I will never be able to repay that gratitude, they saved our family. I know they have done the same for countless families, and will go to the ends of the earth to help and support anyone in need. They continue to do the same despite the fact that I am 99% sure that SCC want it closed.

I have plenty more information to add more weight to the argument to maintain the Balsam Centres provision as it stands today, with no reduction in services it provides to ALL families in Wincanton and surrounding areas. I am currently launching a petition and raising awareness with local media to build support for a campaign to ensure the Balsam Centre remains exactly as it is, for the benefit of any future families who may experience needs and difficulties, or who want to meet likeminded people and build friendships.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Mr Chris Hill


Nick Colbert
Posts: 4
Saving the Balsam Centre
Reply #1 on : Thu October 10, 2013, 12:58:01
Below is my answer to Chris's letter:

Hi Chris,

I have got hold of a copy of the County Councils "Update on the Somerset Children's Centres Change Programme" which I have attached for you to be able to read.

My grandchildren use the Balsam Centre, indeed when I was shown round by Sue Place after my election one of my daughters and her daughter were there enjoying the facilities. My daughter did say (they were doing cooking class's with the children at the time) that she was cross that people were asked to contribute what they could towards the costs of running the programme; ingredients, energy, the centre etc but how many people who could afford to help with a small contribution didn't.

You will no doubt recall when the Labour government left office one treasury minister left a note saying "Ha ha there's no money left", for the coalition to find. That is the problem the whole country is now having to suffer. I didn't vote to have defence spending cut, police spending cut or good services like the Balsam centre lost and I will do my best to fight to retain them all. The difficulty the County Council has is that central government (Labour spent all the money) are cutting their grant by £25 million pounds this year and every year for the next 4 years. Anna Groskop, your County Councillor, is at her wits end trying to work out where the savings can be made without affecting the good services we need.

You mention the cynic in you, I am now 58 and believe me you will get more cynical as you get older, probably with good cause. In the news this week alone I hear the EU had "lost" €90 billion and they claim not to know where its gone, the previous government spent £10 billion on an NHS IT system that doesn't work and has now been scrapped and our own wonderful District Council has just given a £13 million concession to a subsidiary of Barrat Homes that they were legally contracted to pay as part of a s106 agreement. Barrat Homes share price was 46p 5 years ago and is now £3.18 and their profits will be £13 million higher this year thanks to the generosity of your District Council, the residents of South Somerset will now have £13 million of services/play areas/infrastructure less. Tim Carroll is a trustee of the Balsam Centre, you should ask him why when he was leader of the District Council 7 years ago they gave a £640,000 golden handshake to his chief executive and then 3 years ago gave a £560,000 golden handshake to the new chief executive and £710,000 to two other officers, sadly its all a disgrace and in councils no-one is ever accountable.

The good news is at my lowly level of politics I will do what I can to fight for the Balsam centre and I know Anna Groskop, despite the £25 million a year reduction in funding from central government, is very supportive of the Balsam Centre. If fact she made funds available for the Balsam Centre to house the centre for unemployed people to retrain to help them get back in the workforce.

We really need to stop people in power wasting our money and focusing spending on the important things in life, health, education, defence and yes the Balsam Centre, and maybe we can keep a bit of what we earn to. Please let the District Council know where in this your priority lies between the things we spoke about as opposed to the Octagon theatre, Barrat Homes and golden handshakes which have accounted for many many millions of wasted pounds of public money.

Kind regards,


Apart from my support for the children’s services in Wincanton I would just like to point out that in Chris's excellent article the large sums of monies wasted including the large sums given back to Barratt Homes and Yarlington were done by the District Council in Yeovil not Somerset County Council.

I have been highlighting the injustice of the District Council making large sums of money in Wincanton through new house building and then 'stealing" it to spend in Yeovil when this money is supposed to provide services for the enlarged population of the town where the new houses are, Wincanton. So basically:

"Stop taking our money to provide better services in Yeovil and spend it on services in Wincanton that people value, including the Balsam Centre.”
Posts: 3
Save the Children's Centre
Reply #2 on : Fri October 11, 2013, 13:18:59
Great article and video Chris. My daughter also when on a visit here found the staff at the Children's Centre very friendly and supportive and helped her network with other young parents. Then there is the situation in our primary schools where I know the staff are faced with a minority of children who arrive at school badly lacking the most basic social skills and with serious behaviour issues as a result of their parents lack of parenting skills. This is something the staff at the Children's Centre can and have really been helping parents with. Take the Centre away and this will get worse.
The Balsam Centre as a whole and the Children's Centre as part of it has proven itself to be a real centre for community activity in this town.

It is a pity that Nick uses three quarters of his very long comment not to talk about the Children's Centre but to go on and on about other issues that he sees illustrate the wicked deficiencies of Tim Carroll and the LD lead District Council. In doing so he not only fails to recognise Tim's key role in setting up and supporting the Balsam Centre, but by doing so he attempts to deflect attention from the central issue. This is that the decision about children's centres will be made by the Tory lead County Council. Yes, with cuts they have tough decisions to make, but what will our Tory County Councillor Anna Groskop be doing about it? How loud will she be campaigning on our behalf? It would be good to hear her speak out on the issue or even write an article about what she thinks and intends to do right here in the Window - as well as in other media.
Last Edit: October 11, 2013, 13:53:40 by johnbaxter  
Nick Colbert
Posts: 4
Wasted money
Reply #3 on : Fri October 11, 2013, 14:41:24
Well you would say that wouldn't you John, but I spend a lot of my time trying to get the District Council to treat Wincanton fairly, in fact that is what I was doing in Yeovil all this morning. I haven't mentioned the unnecessary roundabout at the bottom of South Street or the £160,000 footpath going in at the end of Moor Lane.
There seems to be little prioritising or even care in the spending of public monies in general. The whole system is in desperate need of an overhaul.
Last Edit: October 11, 2013, 14:42:09 by Nick Colbert  
Posts: 1
Wincanton Children's Centre
Reply #4 on : Fri October 11, 2013, 15:55:36
I appreciate,from correspondence with our most conscientious County Councillor Anna Groskop, that SCC is in a very difficult position financially and as a result must make some unpalatable decisions. I very much hope that the decision on the future of our excellent Children's Centre has not already been taken by SCC's officers and that she and her fellow Councillors will take note on the many comments made by local people, including Chris Hill (and myself) and decide for themselves. However, for our case to have any merit, it must be supported by hard evidence on the projected increase in the numbers of 0-5 year olds within Wincanton Children's Centre's catchment area and the percentage that are likely to fall into the most needy category. Only then can we demonstrate that our children are just as needy great as those in Bridgwater, Taunton and Yeovil. One hopes that the medical, nursing and social work professionals who support vulnerable children and their familes in this area are also expressing their views as trenchantly as possible to County Hall.
Posts: 3
The Childrens Centre and Wasted Money
Reply #5 on : Sat October 12, 2013, 15:13:44
Nigel brings the discussion back to the key issue this article is about, ie the Children's Centre. To his list of "medical, nursing and social work professionals" of course we need to add teachers who have to deal with troubled children who cannot cope when they come to pre-schools and primaries.

Nick, as for the two issues you raise, the roundabout and the footpath I agree both seem an unbelievable waste of our money that cries out to be spent on more important projects. Again both are the result it seems of the District Council (the pathway) and the County Council(the roundabout) going ahead without proper consultations with each other or with the local community (the town council)

Talking about these in this space is however off the point which is the Children's Centre.

Nick it would be great if you could write separate articles about either or both of these issues for the Window for as a councillor you have access to more information and a direct responsibility towards us.
Nick Colbert
Posts: 4
Children's services
Reply #6 on : Sat October 12, 2013, 16:17:20
I think we all agree, and the good point made by Nigel is:

"However, for our case to have any merit, it must be supported by hard evidence on the projected increase in the numbers of 0-5 year olds within Wincanton Children's Centre's catchment area and the percentage that are likely to fall into the most needy category."

We are in competition with other children's centres, which is not where I want to be, but is where we are. We need to put forward the number of new houses and the number of social houses that have been constructed in the catchment area in the last 4 years which, I believe, is since the figures being used were compiled.

The sites that immediately come to mind (with 35% social housing) are the Bovis and Taylor Wimpey sites in Wincanton, 2 Yarlington social housing sites in Templecombe, one Yarlington social housing site in Castle Cary, one Hastoe social housing site in Queen Camel, the Belway site at Cuckoo Hill in Bruton which also includes social housing,

There will be many more, plus sites with applications in and pending, with social housing, there are 2 currently in Wincanton, and a large one (100+) in Templecombe, which need to be taken into the mix.

This is what we need to prove need for a childrens centre in Wincanton, I will ask a question of the District Council as to the exact number of houses and social houses built in the last 4 years in our catchment area.

On a political note I have mentioned many times how the County Council was taken from £15 million in the black to £354 million in debt by the Liberal Democrats when they were in charge, if they had not done that the County would have been in a much better position to withstand these cuts without children's services being cut.

I wish I had a pound for every time I have said DON'T SPEND MONEY YOU DON'T HAVE it always ends in tears, unfortunately the man in charge of the council when the debts were accumulated will probably soon be made a Lord - there is no justice.
Posts: 3
Justice? What justice!
Reply #7 on : Sun October 13, 2013, 08:14:17
Nick again spoils a letter which makes good points about the increase in housing and social housing in our area and the effect this will have on children's services when in his last sentence he takes a very nasty swipe at someone he is not even prepared to name and who again it seems has no direct involvement in or responsibility for the future of our Childen's Centre.
The Animal
Posts: 3
The Animal is here...
Reply #8 on : Sat February 15, 2014, 15:47:09
I am shocked that this could be even thought of. we have a small sleepy town... it has a long list of issues which I wish to address.
but this is a huge key issue. thank you for bringing it up to the forefront of thought.

My family use the B-C and its child services. my daughter really enjoys it. and I know its a massive help for my partner.
I feel quite insulted by a remark in "nigelengert"'s post - he placed the idea -
"that SCC is in a very difficult position financially and as a result must make some unpalatable decisions"
a statement I hate, though I know its not their chosen view.
my problem basis on the possibility that our council needs to pick and choose what it can afford to do, and that our children and families are going to suffer because of their choices.

Can I also ask for a councilor to impart some knowledge to me... may I ask a councilor where / who will help support my child, + new child due in March. and my partner, especially as I work out of the area and hence we rely on these services for extra help and support.

lastly, i wish to ask if there is anything the local community can do, or anything I can do.- is there a meeting or something I could attend?

I have chosen to stand up for out community as much as possible, and I intend to work with the local charities etc to make Wincanton as good as I can, if there is anything in those lines which would help you just say the word. HOWEVER - i must emphasize that I believe good health and social care, especially when it comes to our children and young people should be a concern of our council- and not down to small charities to float.
Thank you for taking the time to read my views

The Animal
is here !
The Animal
Posts: 3
PS... Nick Colbert
Reply #9 on : Sat February 15, 2014, 16:00:09
I can see you are a councilor of the better kind, asking the questions which need to be asked of "higher authority" and id just like to extend my thanks on that.

The Animal.
Nick Colbert
Posts: 4
Children's services
Reply #10 on : Sun February 16, 2014, 10:15:40
Thanks for that nice comment Animal, I have always challenged poor "higher authority", but sometimes it makes you wonder if banging your head against a brick wall is worth it because it hurts, but then when I see our money being wasted on unimportant things when core services are suffering I just have to start banging that wall again, I guess some of us never learn.
The Animal
Posts: 3
A Question of Honour sir
Reply #11 on : Wed February 19, 2014, 16:46:20
One mans head banging is the next mans beacon of hope. there is Honor in the continued plod, even if it feels that it is going nowhere. On behalf of my family, and I'm sure many others, Thank you.

Honestly though, my remark earlier obviously has received no such response... re - May I ask a councilor where / who will help support my child, + new child due in March
Of course I do mean those nice Big counselors who seem to delight in squandering the hard earned finance and good will away from Wincanton.
do they not log on to this web site... our my opinions not good enough for them to discuss.

You keep going Nick, you would have my vote sir.

as before... The Animal
Is Here !
Last Edit: February 19, 2014, 16:47:01 by The Animal  

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