Local authorities warn that councils and young people ‘cannot afford to keep waiting’ for children’s services reform

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2022 | 28 October 2022

Promised reforms to children’s social care are long overdue and vital to improve the life chances of young people whilst protecting councils from spiralling costs, local authority leaders today warn.

The County Councils Network (CCN) says that the new government needs to begin ‘urgently’ implementing the key recommendations of an independent review into children’s social care, which concluded five months ago – and put council-run care services on a sustainable footing.

Failure to do so could mean that the number of vulnerable children being placed in council care could reach almost 100,000 by 2025 – up from 69,000 in 2015, with councils set to spend £3.6bn more a year on these young people compared to 2015. Left unchecked, the costs of children in council care could consume 60% of an average local authority’s budget by the middle of the decade.

The call comes in the last chapter of CCN’s Five Point Plan for County and Unitary Councils, which you can download here.

Point 5 – Achieving a Bright Future for Children and Young People – makes the other following key recommendations:

  • The government must support county authorities in meeting the costs and demands in home to school transport.
  • Proposed reforms to the SEND system must be completed – and that proposals put the system on a sustainable financial footing.
  • County authorities should continue to play an influential role in the education system.

In terms of children’s services reform, the previous government had committed to set out an implementation plan by the end of 2022. CCN says that children and councils ‘cannot afford to wait’.

Council leaders say it is imperative the government invests £2.6bn into children’s services – as recommended by the review – to help reverse the steep number of children going into care. Children who require council-arranged care are the most expensive part of a council’s children’s services. With demand and costs rising each year, councils overspent their Looked After Children budgets by £450m last year – a 9% overspend.

Extra funding injected into the system could allow local authorities to invest in preventative services, which have been reduced due to funding pressures, and transform how they work. Councils have reduced their expenditure on preventive services by over £400m since 2015, due to funding pressures.

Investing £2.6bn between 2023 and 2027 will allow local authorities to implement a new ‘optimised model’ of delivering children’s services through reforming the way they currently work. This would include investing in early help services and their own work practices and recruiting more foster carers, helping to reduce the number of children going into care and make the system more sustainable over time.

Previous CCN projections estimate that up to 31,000 young people could live safely with their families and communities rather than in the care of local authorities, based on projected figures of children in care by the end of 2025. This would mean the number of children in care could decrease to 64,000 – significantly less than the highest projection of 95,000 if nothing is done.

CCN says that these figures show that the status quo is no longer an option – and reforms to the system are long overdue. The network has called on the new Education Secretary to begin setting out a reforms package that incorporates many of the key recommendations from the independent review, and inject more funding into the system from next year.

Councils must be at the heart of any reform with local authorities working in partnership with the government, schools, and charities to ensure they are delivered and resource is targeted most effectively.

After the independent review concluded in May, a Children’s Social Care National Implementation Board was subsequently set up to be chaired by Schools Minister Kelly Tolhurst MP and to advise ministers on the implementation of these proposed reforms. Outside of a commitment from the previous government to publish a plan for reform the end of 2022, there has been little update.

Cllr Keith Glazier, Children’s Services Spokesperson for the County Councils Network, said:

 “Both councils and successive governments recognise that the status quo is no longer an option for children’s care services. Left unchecked, the number of children in care could reach almost 100,000 in less than three years’ time. This is far too many – young people need to be better supported to stay with their families or carers, wherever safely possible.

 “The independent review was a landmark report that clearly articulated the need to invest in the system and allow local authorities to take the lead in developing a reformed system which works better for young people and protects them from serious harm.

 “With many councils overspending on budgets due to the expensive nature of children in care, we need to break the cycle and reform is long overdue. Whilst we appreciate there is a  commitment to set out a plan by the end of the year, both councils and young people cannot afford to keep waiting. Now it is in place, the new government must urgently begin to set out proposals in the coming weeks to reshape the system, starting with a pledge to invest in preventive services.”

 Notes to editor

  • Children being taken into care are the most serious – and expensive – decisions for local authorities. A child may be taken into the care of the local authority where it is believed they are suffering, or at risk of suffering, significant harm. Once taken into care, the local authority will endeavour to reunite the child with their parent or guardian if it is safe to do so, but long-term options could include residential placements, special guardianship where a family member looks after the child, a foster home, or adoption. 
  • The forecasted rise in children coming into care is calculated by applying the average growth rate between March 2017 to March 2020 to current number of children in care. The figure is taken from this report by Newton for CCN. See page 5.
  • Figures on overspends for Looked After Children – those in council care – were taken from what local authorities spent in this service area in 2020-21 compared to what they budgeted at the start of that financial year. Councils budgeted £4.974bn at the start of the year but spent £5.427bn at the end of it. The datasets can be found here.