Breaking up Buckinghamshire into two unitary councils would take “unwarranted risks with children’s welfare” and seriously undermine efforts to improve children’s social care, a government commissioner has warned.
In a report published today by commissioner John Coughlan, who is Hampshire CC’s chief executive and was sent in to Buckinghamshire CC after Ofsted found repeated failings in support services, endorsed the “current direction of travel” at the council.
He said due to “clear political commitment backed… by an exceptionally strong core of senior officer leadership”, he could see no “valid case” for introducing an alternative delivery model for children’s social care in the county.
Mr Coughlan added an alternative delivery model “would at best slow down if not seriously disrupt the now rapidly developing improvement programme”.
He said external support to improve children’s social care “may not be necessary” but “could be a useful insurance against unforeseen factors”.
One of these factors, Mr Coughlan said, could be the implications of reorganisation in the county, after former housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid said he was “minded to” approve a bid by the county to become a single unitary.
This is opposed by Buckinghamshire’s four districts, which have submitted a proposal for two unitary councils.
Mr Coughlan said the “minded to decision” on reorganisation “should be manageable” alongside children’s social care improvement.
However, he added: “I would categorically not recommend and would argue strongly against any [reorganisation] decision to split children’s services in Buckinghamshire, either in terms of commissioning or delivery, from the existing single county model.
“I believe that would be taking serious and unwarranted risks with children’s welfare in the county.”
Mr Coughlan acknowledged that “some might argue the commissioner’s impartiality in this regard as a serving county chief executive” and summarised his “perception” of reorganisation “partly and inevitably” based on his experience in Hampshire, where the county has been in dispute with the cities and districts over reorganisation.
He highlighted that single-tier local government is “significantly cheaper” than two-tier, which is “increasingly difficult to defend at any level in the face of the ongoing and unprecedented pressures on local government finance”.
Mr Coughlan added this was “exacerbated in children’s services by the financial crisis facing the services nationally”.
“A two-unitary proposal would not be able to replicate or duplicate this capacity and its disruption would take back the improvement journey by at least two years,” he added.
“That would pose a direct risk to vulnerable children in the county which I certainly would not wish to be associated with. I cannot make this point strongly enough.”
Buckinghamshire chief executive Rachael Shimmin said: “Whilst we recognise that we have more to do in children’s services, it is positive that the commissioner’s report recognises the strong political and managerial leadership within the county council which provide the right conditions to ensure that we achieve sustainable improvements for children and their families.”