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Thinking long-term

Next month, the Chancellor will deliver his Autumn Statement, outlining government’s plans for public spending. There are many public services under strain that will undoubtedly have made their case to the Treasury for additional funding to ease pressures and help them plan for the future. Their concerns should of course be heard and acted upon by ministers, but I want to focus this blog on the pressing issue of children’s services funding.

For many years, ADCS has highlighted the damaging impact of over a decade of austerity on local authority children’s services and the children and families we support. There is a slew of evidence outlining the perverse impact on the system when money is taken out of preventative, early help services yet this is the only option left for many LAs who are trying, against all odds, to deliver a balanced budget. ADCS Safeguarding Pressures research evidences the rise in child protection activity over the same period of austerity and the pressure this has put on the system in terms of demand.

We still don’t have a long-term funding settlement for children’s services that recognises these pressures, despite the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care calling for the investment of £2.6 billion over four years to reform the children’s social care system and rebalance spending towards earlier help. We also have a reform programme that is based on the very services which are being cut back.

Children’s social care and high needs funding pressures are arguably the biggest challenges for local government finances. Many councils across the country are in serious financial difficulty, some are dealing with the realities of this now and considering issuing Section 114 notices, many more will face this conundrum over the coming 18 months if nothing changes. Local councils really are in a fragile, perilous state. There is clearly an urgent need to set a long-term equitable and sufficient funding settlement for children’s services, but this requires government to finally acknowledge the difficult reality we are operating within. For example, if we look at high needs funding pressures, the government’s response has largely been focussed on improving practice and trying to find efficiencies in how local authorities allocate their funding. I can assure you that this will not address the systemic problems in the SEND system that have led to eye watering deficits. However, if government were to instead focus on the systemic issues that have driven up costs and not improved outcomes for children, such as a mainstream education system that does not reward inclusivity and an over reliance on costly independent specialist provision, then collectively, we may start to be able to shift some of this. There are many similar examples across the sector, all with the common theme of requiring a whole system, long-term approach.

I therefore urge the Chancellor to think long-term and view the system as a whole when allocating funding. Disparate pots of time-limited grant funding from government over recent years, which often local authorities must bid and compete for, may have helped to alleviate some demand pressures but have not addressed the root cause. If government is truly ambitious, it can set us on a path towards a financially sustainable system that improves children’s lives. The evidence is there, we just need the financial backing to make the change.

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