Last year the prime minister declared austerity was “over”.
Fast forward to this year’s spring statement and it’s clear that the policy is alive and well – but at what cost to our society?
Since 2010, local authority budgets have halved whilst the level and complexity of need in our communities is rising. Our ability to step in, help families earlier and prevent them from reaching crisis point is being eroded, as early help and preventative services continue to be a casualty of funding cuts.
At the same time, there is a lengthy and growing list of legal responsibilities for relating to children, young people and families, including new duties not always fully funded.
Care leavers can now ask for support from a personal adviser up to the age of 25. But the money councils have received for this is woefully inadequate and adds a significant pressure to our already challenging financial position, as does inadequate funding from the Home Office to cover the costs of caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
Councils must spend on statutory child protection where need exists, but this means having to cut the services that help reduce future demand. It’s a false economy and not the right thing to do. But in the absence of an improved funding settlement for children’s services our hands are tied.
Although there has been some extra funding for children’s social care this is far from what is needed. More small, time-limited pots of funding aimed at single issues for some local authorities are not the solution to the growing pressures we all face.
Collectively, children’s services overspent by over £800m in 2017-18 and we face a £3bn funding gap by 2025. A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee deemed the financial position of the sector unsustainable.
Other vital public services, such as schools, health and the police, aren’t immune either and face their own financial challenges. The evidence of how this affects on our communities is stark.
An estimated 600 youth centres closed between 2012 and 2016, while 1,200 children’s centres have closed since 2010. More children are being taken into care, too many children are being excluded from schools and children are waiting weeks, sometimes months, before they can get the mental health support they need.
Child poverty is increasing too. There are queues outside food banks and more vulnerable families are being housed in temporary accommodation, facing the indignity of shared bathroom facilities due to rising living costs and insecure tenancies.
This country does not “work for everyone”, least of all for growing numbers of children. But it could if the political will was there, and the public support.
So before I hand over my presidency to the very capable Rachel Dickinson, executive director for people in Barnsley MBC, I have a plea for the Treasury. If this government is serious about improving social mobility and enabling every child to thrive – not just barely survive – then it must value them, recognise their potential and invest in them and their futures.
There must be a two-pronged approach to funding if we are to meet the needs of children now and in the future: investment in both statutory, high end services and in early help. It is within the Treasury’s gift to fund a country that works for all children.
Stuart Gallimore, director of children’s services at East Sussex CC and outgoing president, Association of Directors of Children’s Services 2018-19