The need to properly finance local authorities

Keith Glazier
Friday, November 27, 2020

During the first lockdown, many county leaders across the country feared that restrictions on children’s services – and particularly the inability to make contact and build support links face-to-face – would have huge consequences: creating an invisible crisis.

With schools closing and other services going digital only for a period, the usual support routes for young people to confide of abuse, or for workers to identify signs of concern, were closed off.

The County Councils Network has carried out a survey of its members to which the vast majority responded. The survey showed that most counties did see a reduction in cases during the lockdown months of April, May, and June – dramatically so in some areas. One county said that April saw its lowest amount of referrals for 12 months.

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In the months since the country opened up, those county areas saw a jump in referrals of 15 per cent – an increase of 7,500 vulnerable young people or over 630 referrals a day on average.

The big concern for social services departments is the shifts in the types of support required: with families coming to councils under huge anxiety and stress.

Two-thirds of the councils surveyed said that mental health was one of the main reasons for referrals since the pandemic began. The isolation, loneliness, loss of social time, and the financial impact of the virus is having a huge destabilising impact on individuals. We thankfully live in a time when mental health is more accepted and identifiable than ever before, but it is imperative these people are supported.

By most analysts’ predictions we are only on the cusp of a global recession and as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the country’s economy, more families will require our support.

As ever though, the true elephant in the room is that of local authority funding. The virus has placed an extra premium on social services, particularly on placements for children. Consequently, nine out of ten local authorities project an overspend on their children’s social care budgets this year.

The Spending Review addressed some concerns, but the nature of its one-year scope means it can only be seen as a holding position.

County authorities were relieved that the government used the review to renew the Troubled Families Programme for 2021 at the same £165m.

But this should only be a baseline: the explosion of Coronavirus-related family issues will mean the pot is spread thinner going forward, and it is unclear how far it will even start to address the rise in children’s mental health conditions that counties are seeing across the board.

CCN has called for the programme to be rebranded into an ‘early intervention framework’ with expanded resources and capacity to address these new requests for support. The government has rightly trumpeted its success over recent years – but it must move with the times to adapt to a post-COVID world.

As we look to a longer-term settlement next autumn the onus must be on how the approach can be broadened to allow councils to address prevention and early intervention in the round, and support families’ evolving need.

A separate CCN survey showed that three in five counties know that if they don’t get prevention right it will store up problems for the future, but they have little room to manoeuvre due to funding shortfalls.

With the Spending Review gone, the Local Government Finance Settlement and the Budget next year need to provide targeted investment for children’s social care to adequately resource councils for another year when demand has outstripped funding.

There is no disaster prognosis at the end of this article, though. Councils will never turn away a vulnerable child who needs support to get out of a toxic and abusive home life, nor will they turn away any family or individual needing help.

But the necessity – and duty - of financing this new demand for care and support will be at the expense of other services county leaders are proud to deliver, such as libraries, buses, and road repairs. With Coronavirus forcing us to reimagine much of the public service, we also should reimagine how we fund social services.

Councillor Keith Glazier is the children and young people spokesperson for the County Councils Network

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