Children’s services straining Southend’s budget as the number of children in care grows

The number of vulnerable children living in the care of Southend Council has jumped by more than 100 in just four years causing council budgets to spiral.

A new council report shows that the authority could spend £4.3million more on children’s services than initially planned and it is primarily down to the growing number of looked after children.

Southend Council confirmed that over the past four years the number of children who need to be removed from their families and taken into council care has grown from 228 at the end of March in 2015 to 336 today – a 47 per cent increase.

Of those, 173 have been housed outside of Southend.

The forecast overspend is £1million more than previously forecast just four months ago in July.

The council’s budget documents explain that care placements can be costly and “there is always the risk that the forecast on this provision can move substantially”.

Councillor Anne Jones, who oversees children’s services in Southend, said: “We have a number of teams providing Early Help and family support and dedicated Edge of Care and Adolescent teams.

“Taking a child away from their family home is always a last resort and only ever taken when in the child’s best interests. Court decisions, high cost placements and changes in adolescent behaviours, have changed social work practices but this has also had an impact on budgets.

“Increased demand on the service has led to increased costs for additional staff in social care teams, in order to cover the workload.

“There is a staffing strategy in place and plans to remove a range of temporary posts, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that help and support is there when needed, especially in crisis. The ongoing safety of children is always the priority.”

An analysis by the Children’s Society found that government cuts made between April 2010 and the end of March 2018 has left a £1.4billion funding gap and this is expected to rise to £3billion by 2025.

Early intervention services such as children’s centres also used to have dedicated ring-fenced funding but that was scrapped in 2010 and replaced with a government grant, it is estimated to have caused a 71 per cent drop in early intervention funding.

Figures from the Local Government Association show that during the same period there has been an increase of 23,600 children classed as ‘in need’ in across the country – from 375,900 in March 2010 to 399,500 in March 2019.

It is also estimated that local authorities take 88 children into care every day.

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter