The three London boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster calculated that, between them, they needed to manage a £100m gap between current budget commitments and future likely resources.
Susan Daniels, chief executive of the National Deaf Children's Society, said these are dark times for children's services in this very column.
But, I say, not if you seize the moment and respond decisively. This must be a time for review and renewal. Frankly, not all the investment that we have enjoyed in the public sector in recent years has been well spent.
The three boroughs have determined that meeting this challenge calls for "a radical reinvention of their councils". The idea is that many (but not all) council services can be managed more efficiently, at greater scale, with the aim to protect more frontline services than could otherwise be done, by reducing management and back-office costs.
Children's services and adult social care were chosen as priorities, accounting for a large proportion of council spend. Leadership and clarity of accountability were identified early as essential ingredients. It was agreed that one tri-borough director of children's services (DCS) and one tri-borough director of adult social care would be appointed by the three councils to fulfil the statutory duties for each authority and to be separately accountable to each council. I was appointed as the tri-borough DCS on 21 July by the three councils.
Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster are strong, high-performing authorities. Each is justifiably proud of its differing achievements.
But there are also great similarities.
All three boroughs share an ambition to develop better means of identifying children in need, and to deliver effective help; all three boroughs want to increase choice in schooling for parents and children, and raise standards yet further; and all three boroughs want to ensure that children who need protection are not just protected but have their life chances improved.
The three boroughs are relatively small, serving a combined population of 585,000. A hundred thousand of those are under 18 - that's comparable in scale to big cities such as Leeds or Sheffield.
Each council retains its sovereignty, embodied in an annual commissioning mandate. This enables each council to determine particular requirements above a core offer.
The total planned savings for the three boroughs for their children's services over the next three years is £33m, £12m of which will be found from the tri-borough arrangements. So it might not solve all the problems, but it will make a significant contribution.
THE TRI-BOROUGH PROPOSALS
- One senior management team; one director of children's services; one director of commissioning; one director of schools; one director of finance and resources; and a director of family services for each borough (which will save £1m)
- Merged education services, with some delivery remaining borough-based
- A merged commissioning function responsible for £80m in spend, delivering efficiencies from joint procurement, such as home-to-school transport and leaving care services
- One youth offending service, serving one court
- One fostering and adoption service, working with 200 carers
- A platform for new models of delivery, including three employee-led mutuals; a multi-systemic therapy pilot; new arrangements working with courts to speed up care proceedings; a pilot of new arrangements for children with special educational needs; and payment-by-results initiatives for children and young people.
Andrew Christie is tri-borough director of children's services, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster