A unique Westcountry charity that helps young families in remote rural areas is to lose half its funding in a month's time – Martin Hesp reports.
A big colourful double-decker bus comes trundling over the hills; it stops on the outskirts of a picturesque village and children clamber all over it having the time of their lives.
You would not think this happy scene has undercurrents of rural deprivation or unseen poverty – you would never dream such a vision speaks of isolated and potentially lonely existences lived out in a prettier part of what is meant to be a modern, joined-up Britain.
But in many ways the West Somerset CLOWNS bus does represent these hidden unseen things that are all too real in the quieter corners of our countryside.
And because of that it has become an icon, a beacon, which brings a sense of community to young families in places where the idea of shared communal life is something spread over miles and miles of moorlands and fields.
Because of its high-profile and importance – and because of its continuing support by the Lottery's Reaching Communities fund (up until March 2016, at least) – the CLOWNS bus will keep visiting remote villages just like it has in some for or other since 1977.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that the charity CLOWNS (which stands for Creating Learning Opportunities in WesterN Somerset for children and adults) is about to lose half its funding.
The Lottery money for the bus is ring-fenced – but altogether the charity supplies six different services across West Somerset and Exmoor's isolated communities – and now manager Kathy Morton is warning that some of the organisation's projects will either disappear altogether or be greatly reduced in the next two months.
"CLOWNS evolved from a number of different organisations and has grown from its humble origins to a major voluntary organisation with an annual turnover for 2011-2012 of £163,127, employing 11 staff and running four vehicles," says Mrs Morton.
"We are now looking at an £80,000 cut in our funding which will hit us in April – that's very nearly half the budget we need, so we will have to make cuts.
"All staff have been informed that they will have a 50 per cent cut in their hours as from April 1," Mrs Morton told the Western Morning News.
Two of the charity's part time workers will lose their jobs altogether, while nine staff will have their hours reduced. Added to that, the outreach family support project – which provides a dozen sessions per week to families who have either self-referred or have been referred by other agencies – will be closed.
CLOWNS will also lose the greater part of its 'physical family fun' programme: "These sessions encourage families to take part in physical activities and healthy living in a fun, safe and stimulating atmosphere," explained Mrs Morton. "Equipment is transported by mini-van to outlying villages across West Somerset – but this will come to an end save for a few sessions that have funding from four local county councillors."
Basically, the reduced levels of funding are down to local government cuts and grant reductions to larger contracting charities like Barnardos.
I put it to Mrs Morton that departments and charities all over the country were being hit in similar ways.
Why, I asked, did she feel CLOWNS deserved continued funding?
"For a start, we are fairly unique in what we do," she replied.
"There's nothing else quite like CLOWNS. There are other play buses, but nothing that does six projects within one organisation.
"A lot of people will say 'Oh CLOWNS – it's the double-decker bus'. The fact is we are so much more than that.
"Also people think the project is completely funded by local authorities. This is not the case.
"We have developed a track record of delivering quality, affordable, provision in a fun, non-threatening and non-judgmental way. On the back of this, serious family support work is carried out.
"We work with other organisations to identify and address the needs of families and communities facing the greatest level of need and isolation."
I put it to Mrs Morton that many urban folk would regard people living in scenic West Somerset and Exmoor as being fortunate as it is not a landscape that echoes with the cries of social deprivation. They might question if there really was a need for services like hers.
"While Somerset appears to be a prosperous county with a high quality of life, evidence indicates that there are significant pockets of poverty, low income, deprivation and need within its local communities," she replied.
"Despite our idyllic environment, West Somerset contains some of the most deprived wards in the county and the region. Around a fifth of children in West Somerset live in households dependent on benefits.
"Poverty is not just about low income," she went on.
"There is a need for access to high-quality healthcare and social services child-care – an important enabler of parental employment.
"Living in a rural area and not having transport, makes it difficult for some families to access a support group or help when needed.
"It means disadvantaged children lack social opportunities for shared play and are reliant on inadequate and costly public transport.
"This means that children often feel confined within their local environments," added Mrs Morton.
"Families in rural areas risk delayed identification of children with difficulties and the development of children's communication skills is essential to prevent delayed speech, language and communication skills."
Feelings of isolation and aloneness are an everyday fact of rural life – that goes with the territory. But one essential difference between country living and an urban existence is what could be described as a fall-back factor. If a service is cut in a city, there will be friends and neighbours close by facing similar problems or hardships – for people like young mums and children out in the hills, there is only the next hedgerow or moorland to gaze at.
Rural services like the ones offered by CLOWNS have been developed over the past 30 years in what could be described as a mini-crusade of civilisation in the wilderness -to many it will seem a sad reversal to see such projects wither in the second decade of the new century.