As a pupil at his local comprehensive in the South Wales Valleys, David Simmonds’ decision to join the Tory party at the age of 17 singled him out as a nonconformist among his classmates. "It was definitely not approved of in that part of the world," he says smiling. "So I was something of a teenage rebel."
But it was this dissent that offered him an extra-curricular pursuit at university and eventually a diversion from his career in banking.
"I moved to London to start my career as a trainee financial adviser and became involved in Hillingdon Council, which is where I happened to land," he explains. "They asked me whether I was interested in standing for council and I was elected in 1998 at the age of 22."
Now lead member for children’s services in the London borough and chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) children and young people board, Simmonds says his youthfulness was considered a risk when he was first appointed.
"It was hugely controversial when I first became a councillor in Hillingdon because of the problems that the council had experienced in the past," he recalls, sitting in the deserted canteen of the LGA’s Westminster offices.
"There was a desire to appoint a safe pair of hands. I was really lucky because Hillingdon showed a lot of faith in younger councillors and I was made responsible for the planning committee and housing and social services. So I’ve actually been responsible for children’s services in Hillingdon in one form or another for 12 years."
Banking and children’s services are not obvious bedfellows, but Simmonds believes his experience in a profession "even more reviled than politics" has parallels with local government.
"I am very proud of the fact that I worked in retail banking for HSBC, which didn’t take any bail-out money from the taxpayer," he proclaims. "The bank put human beings in charge of making decisions, not computers, so that’s why they didn’t get themselves into huge trouble when the financial crisis hit.
"There are many lessons that read across to children’s services. For example, we’ve seen lots of money spent on computer systems that haven’t done a huge amount to improve the quality of children’s lives. As the Munro child protection review recognised, having good frontline social workers makes the difference, because it’s about humans and relationships."
He believes his financial services background has equipped him to handle the heavy cuts that are driving councils to rethink public services across the country.
"Money is always the biggest challenge," he says. "If you as a council aren’t managing your budget, then your budget will be managing you. We’re seeing a lot of councils in the media saying they are being forced to make cuts. Actually, if you have a really sound approach to financial management, you can cope with these changes far more effectively."
Simmonds, who stood for MP in Erewash, Derbyshire, in the 2005 general election – beating Robert Kilroy-Silk but losing out to the Labour candidate Liz Blackman – argues that local government must take charge of protecting the most important services. "We’ve seen only a small number of children’s centres close across the country," he says. "That’s because councils have said that despite a reduction of about a quarter in funding, these centres are a real priority."
It is clear that Simmonds has lost little of his idealism, as he claims that making such difficult decisions is the "legal and moral responsibility" of local authorities. "Your council is the one organisation that will never ever give up on a child when family or life goes wrong," he says. "The council has to step in".
The Prime Minister’s plan to transform the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families by 2015 has been branded impractical and underfunded by many in local government.
But Simmonds again is upbeat about local government’s ability to improve the lives of its most vulnerable residents. He believes there are already many "powerful" examples of how councils are succeeding in this endeavour.
"I met a mum in one of our children’s centres recently who said she had been on the verge of suicide because of the ill health of one of her children and some problems that were going on with their home, which meant they were at risk of eviction," he explains.
"She said that the children’s centre had been able to turn her life around, so now she was looking at going back to work and things were stable in the family. That’s because the centre was able to bring together housing services, a health visitor and provide a bit of respite."
Meeting the target
The government is providing £448m over the next three years to cover 40 per cent of the cost of dealing with the 120,000 families – on a payment-by-results basis. Councils will have to foot the remaining 60 per cent of the bill. Unlike some of his colleagues in local government, Simmonds refuses to be drawn on whether the offer is sufficient to meet the target.
"That money is already there at a local level, so we’re starting to join that up," he says. "The big challenge is going to be demonstrating the financial savings in the long term, which is what payment-by-results is all about."
One area where he admits that government might have to loosen the purse strings is on funding for children in care. With referrals to children’s social care and care applications at an all-time high, he says something has to give.
"Councils seem to be coping relatively well at the moment because they are reallocating services at a local level to meet the increased number of referrals," he says. "But if the increase in referrals keeps on growing at the current rate, there will need to be some national consideration about resources. Councils are very focused at getting services at the front-end to a much higher level than in the past, but you can never stand still and there are always going to be new challenges popping up."
In Hillingdon, Simmonds is faced with the unique set of difficulties that arise from it being a "port authority".
"We have the challenge of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children coming through Heathrow airport," he explains. "So war breaking out in Syria will increase the number of children coming into our looked-after system at a local level.
"In other local authorities, a big regeneration project that attracts families to a particular area for work or housing reasons may mean that a council sees a significant increase in the number of children that it is responsible for.
"Councils are best placed to manage that. It’s just when the total number of children coming into the system gets bigger and bigger, month by month, at some point we have to be prepared to pay for it."
The balancing act required to make the government’s aspiration for localism work in the context of changing central policy is being put to the test with the ongoing health reforms.
Simmonds is characteristically enthusiastic about government plans to move responsibility for public health back to councils, but admits that plans to make the new body Public Health England responsible for children aged from birth to five could be problematic when children aged from five to 19 will be the responsibility of local authorities.
"When we had the swine flu outbreak last year, we had a child in one of our local schools who was sadly one of the first and the youngest person to die," he says. "The school and the governors were crying out for support and they turned to the council in the first instance. Trying to manage a situation where some of those children would be the responsibility of a national NHS body and some would be the responsibility of the council is going to be difficult."
However, his belief in the government’s vision underpins his optimism that such wide-ranging reforms can achieve success: "The government is listening to that argument and I’m hopeful that as things pan out over the next few years that we may see the whole of public health responsibility coming to sit with councils."
As for the future, Simmonds bats away any suggestion of a further stab at becoming an MP. The numerous challenges of working in local government are "more than enough", he says.
- David Simmonds is deputy leader and lead member for children’s services at the London Borough of Hillingdon. He is also chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board
- He was first elected as a Conservative councillor in the borough in 1998 at the age of 22
- He stood unsuccessfully for parliament in the 2001 and 2005 general elections in Caerphilly, South Wales, and Erewash, Derbyshire
- Simmonds worked in banking for HSBC between 1997 and 2001, after studying at Durham University