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Children bore austerity's brunt. They were not at the Budget's heart

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A guest briefing from Matt Dunkley, corporate director for children, young people and education, Kent CC, and chair, resources and sustainability policy committee, Association of Directors of Childrens Services

Making the case to the Treasury for adequate children’s services funding can feel like turning up to a swordfight with a stick of celery.

Children don’t vote, rely on adults to advocate on their behalf, and often feature low on the list of MP’s postbag issues. Yet children have borne austerity’s brunt.

This view is shared by many – including the 120 organisations who recently asked the chancellor and the prime minister to put children at the heart of government spending. There is also a growing body of national research from the likes of the National Audit Office, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the all-party parliamentary group for children illustrating the growing pressures facing our services.

The Budget contained some welcome respite for local authorities, but children were not at its heart. It also ignored one of the biggest financial risks to many council and school balances – the ballooning demand for special educational needs and disability (Send) and high needs funding.

In fact, the £420m announced in the Budget for potholes was larger than that announced for schools, as well as for adult and children’s social care. Without more money many councils will cut their few non-statutory services – which prevent children needing statutory social care and Send services – to pay the spiralling cost of statutory services.

It’s a vicious cycle.

What is needed now is a complete rethink of how government funds children’s services, and recognition of the relationship between spending on vulnerable children now and future spending on vulnerable adults. It is the ultimate invest to save case, as well as being the right and fair thing to do.

Ahead of next year’s spending review local authorities will be working hard to highlight the true extent, range and impact of pressures we face. We believe these can be broadly split into three categories.

The first category concerns common costs and prices in all local authorities, including growth in the number of children; an increasing number of statutory duties, including new and unfunded burdens; and price and wage inflation including the national minimum wage, national insurance increases and the apprenticeship levy.

The impact of these factors across different places will vary, but these increased costs haven’t been reflected in the funding we receive.

The second category are the common drivers of demand. These are external pressures driving demand for all services to vulnerable children in local authorities and include: growth in child poverty; the impact of welfare and housing reform; growth in the prevalence of domestic violence; child sexual exploitation and gangs; home to school transport; the impact of school exclusions; and better life expectancy for children with complex health needs – which impacts Send and high needs budgets.

These pressures will likewise be felt differently by different local authorities, but by all to some degree.

Last are local-authority specific pressures which affect our capacity to prevent and manage demand for statutory services and prevent unit costs rising. These include geography and rurality; deprivation; ability to attract external funding; council fiscal fragility; local commissioning and market capacity; health economy; Ofsted ratings; workforce supply; and the viability of other local services relied on.

The key issue is the lack of a sustainable and equitable core funding strategy for children’s services. Some local authorities have been able to secure more funding through the Innovation Programme, Partners in Practice and Opportunity Areas.

But the time-limited nature of grant funding limits impact and does not guarantee longevity. Moreover, most children and families will not benefit from this investment. A similar picture is emerging in education with small, one-off pots of money appearing in recent budgets.

A comprehensive funding package across the full breadth of services for children and families is the only way to address the gaps in both the quality and reach of services across the country.

Matt Dunkley, corporate director for children, young people and education, Kent CC, and chair, resources and sustainability policy committee, Association of Directors of Childrens Services

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