With the summer holidays fast becoming a distant memory I guess like everyone else we are all well and truly in the budget setting season. It should come as no surprise that every year it gets harder as we look for savings on top of those that have gone before. At the same time, we see an increase on those demand led budgets increasing at a time when expectations continue to rise, be they from those we work with, politicians or the general public. Whilst it is refreshing to have a Secretary of State who seems to have a real passion and interest in ‘place' in general and children in need, in particular, I am left wondering where we will find the money to enhance any service offer in that direction.
The current projection from the Local Government Association of a £2bn shortfall in children's services by 2020 is a truly scary prospect as we see, on a daily basis, the needs of those children and families who rely on the services we provide becoming more complex. I doubt I am alone in looking at making further reductions in the very areas we know make a difference and reduce future demand to ensure a degree of protection for our so-called "statutory services". Authorities up and down the land have found themselves having to cut back on early help services, children's centres and youth provision often in the face of strong local opposition and at a time when families are on the receiving end of a range of benefit changes and wider service reductions.
Listening to Alison Garnham from the Child Poverty Action Group at the ADCS annual conference in July was a sobering experience and I would recommend the presentation to you which is available on our website. It all contributes to the Association's broader call for "a country that works for all children" that Alison our president has so brilliantly led. The danger is, however, that just like Oliver Twist, we are seen as constantly wanting more without identifying where else it might come from in a tight fiscal climate and this is where my thought, although not original to me, and my ask to government comes in. If for the sake of argument, we accept the £2bn deficit by 2020 it is interesting to consider that in 2015/16 local authorities spent nearly £1bn transporting children to and from educational settings. Surely this is an area ripe for review when we consider all that has changed since the legislation was passed in 1944, placing a responsibility on local authorities to get children to school.
In my own authority, the budget for this service is approaching £12m, we provide virtually no discretionary travel and this amount can be compared with the £14m savings target we have been working towards over the last three years. I know one of my neighbours spends more on home-to-school transport then he does on social workers. Clearly, there will always be children with additional needs where this transport is vital but in the current economic climate, this cannot be a level of universal expenditure that can be justified. Other than ensuring we are providing it as efficiently as possible, it is an area of saving that is not open to me. In this age of austerity is it right that we take no account of household income or in some instances pay parents to take their own children to school because it is cheaper than sending a taxi to meet a duty that has been unchanged for over 70 years? A further reduction of early help services or a national review of home to school transport policy - I know which I would prefer, just a thought…
Stuart Gallimore is ADCS vice-president and DCS in East Sussex. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website