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County sees off SEND children's budget challenge

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Surrey CC has seen off a legal challenge to its plan to reduce its budget for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) by £21m.

High Court judges on Friday ruled the council did not have a duty to consult on proposals in its budget for 2018-19 as these simply identified how savings might be made.

The challenge was brought on behalf of five children, all of whom have special educational needs, and were supported by their mothers. It initially challenged the full £21m reduction in SEND funding.

However, the claimants’ counsel later confined the claim to one of eight proposed savings in SEND spending worth £11.7m and described as “inclusion, commissioning, provision and transition”.

It was argued that Surrey had failed to consult on the plan and the savings would result in the council failing to comply with its statutory duties. Furthermore, the claimants said the proposal was “irrational” as Surrey did not know precisely how the savings would be achieved, or what the implications would be.

However, the claimants’ counsel did not submit expert evidence on local government finance, as had previously been suggested, and therefore there was no challenge to the facts of the budget decision.

Surrey argued that it was lawful for its cabinet to include the SEND savings and the case against it was predicated on a “flawed assumption” that approving the budget would automatically result in a reduction in services for children.

The council also argued the budget is part of a lawful accountancy process for local government that identifies how savings might be made but “is not set in stone”. Therefore, the council could not know what the impact of the savings might be.

In conclusion, Lady Justice Sharp and Mrs Justice McGowan said Surrey “was not under a statutory obligation to produce such a budget” and “the savings identified in the budget were not specific or concrete proposals to make actual cuts or alter services.”

They added: “[The savings] represented a projection or prediction of expected income and expected expenditure at that specific point in time, to help the council manage its finances, with a high… risk that the savings identified would not be achieved.”

resilience report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy last year concluded that Surrey was facing a budget gap of £86m by the end of 2019-20.

In February, Surrey leader Tim Oliver (Con), who succeeded David Hodge in December last year, admitted the council had not done enough in the past to ensure it is financially sustainable.

The council delivered £106m of savings in 2018-19.

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