Children’s Services Spending: Where has the axe fallen?

Calum Webb (University of Sheffield) and Paul Bywaters (Huddersfield University)

Children’s and Young Peoples’ Services, encapsulating children’s centres, safeguarding and social work, family support, services associated with looked after children, often totals nearly £10 billion of spending annually. Despite this, limited attention is paid to how these funds are spent, and much less is known about how such spending has changed over time. Has spending increased or decreased under austerity? Have budgets for front-line services for some of the most vulnerable and voiceless members of society – children at risk of abuse and neglect – been protected, as is often claimed, or axed, in the face of the rising strain placed on local government finances? Where cuts have been made to cope with reduced budgets, where have they fallen? Have cuts to children’s services been greater in more deprived local authorities, as previous research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has indicated, further disadvantaging children from poorer communities and with greater needs?

The contradictory findings from government departments does not inspire confidence in their ability to answer any of these questions convincingly. A 2016 report from the National Audit Office concluded that expenditure on children’s services had risen by approximately 12 per cent between 2012 and 2015. This report, however, only looks at a sum of between £1.6 billion and £1.8 billion, and we had no luck replicating this figure – not with any combination of categories or adjustments for inflation.

A more recent report published by the Department for Education came to fundamentally different conclusions, namely that total expenditure had fallen by 9 per cent between 2010 and 2016, and that between 2012 and 2015, the same period covered by the NAO report, spending had reduced from £9.2 billion to £8.9 billion, a 3 per cent reduction.

The problem is partly down to the quality of the data – the inconsistency of categories between years prevents any meaningful long term comparisons of very specific spending areas. A few of the broader spending categories are fairly stable over time, namely spending on looked after children and spending on safeguarding, and the remainder of categories can loosely be considered ‘preventative’ or ‘early intervention’ services. These are the Sure Start centres or family support services that are intended to address the difficulties children in need may face before these problems develop to the point that they require more drastic interventions.

The second major problem with the official reports is the tendency to only focus on changes in the total national levels of expenditure, rather than focusing on what has been happening on a local authority level. All it takes is a few of the larger local authorities, the ‘big spenders’, to see an increase to dwarf many negative trends in smaller local authorities. This approach therefore doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality for children across England.

When we looked at expenditure after taking these things into account we found very clear patterns. The most deprived 20 per cent of local authorities had seen reductions in spending of 25 per cent, whereas the least deprived 20 per cent have had cuts of 4 or 5 per cent. When we split local authorities into three equally sized groups of 50 (the City of London and Isles of Scilly LAs are excluded as outliers), based on their deprivation scores, we found significant differences in the expenditure trends: rapid rundowns of expenditure per child in the 50 most deprived local authorities, less extreme cuts for the 50 ‘middle’ deprived local authorities, and far less severe cuts for the 50 least deprived local authorities. This is in part due to the indiscriminate way in which austerity measures have been introduced, without attention to the fact that more deprived local authorities typically have higher spending per child to meet greater levels of more complex needs. This means a hypothetical 10 per cent cut in Middlesbrough is going to result in a much bigger loss of £-per-child than a 10 per cent cut in Wokingham.

What’s more is that the share of spending across the different services has changed substantially, mirroring patterns in social work practice more broadly. The share of spending has shifted away from the aforementioned preventative and support services in favour of maintaining the share of safeguarding spending and increasing the share of looked after children spending. On average, local authorities spent around 46 per cent of their children’s services budget on more prevention focused services in 2010-11. By 2014-15 this had fallen to only 33.5 per cent. This has been fairly universal across all local authorities, but slightly more extreme in the most deprived third, and is best seen visually.

CW graph for blog feb

We don’t know completely what impact this will have on the lives of children, but we do know that since 2010 there has been evidence of an increase in demand for children’s social services; with average Looked After Children rates increasing from 57.5 children per 10,000 in 2010-11 to 62 children per 10,000 in 2014-15, and the number of children in the population rising by approximately 750,000 since 2010. Furthermore, this population increase has been largely concentrated in the most deprived local authorities (12%) compared to the least deprived local authorities (4%), meaning stable intervention rates – such as rates of children in care – actually represent a substantial increase in workload for practitioners. This is just one part of a complex picture of disadvantage that children living in poverty face. What we do know is that there needs to be a clear commitment to improving the quality and detail of the data that is collected about expenditure and deprivation because, as Ofsted’s Annual Report has acknowledged, there is a link between this and the quality of the services children receive across the country.

The research presented here was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and is part of the Child Welfare Inequalities Project and will be published in Local Government Studies in February 2018. Evidence from the project is being presented to an APPG for Children on the 7th February 2018.

Calum WebbCalum Webb is an ESRC White Rose postgraduate research student at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Sociological Studies. He has recently contributed to the ESRC funded research project ‘Developing a Policy Learning Tool for Anti-Poverty Policy Design and Assessment’ and the Nuffield Foundation funded ‘Child Welfare Inequalities Project’. His PhD research investigates approaches to the longitudinal measurement of multidimensional poverty. Calum tweets using @cjrwebb

Paul BywatersPaul Bywaters is Professor of Social Work at Huddersfield University working in the Centre for Applied Childhood, Youth and Family Research. He has led a series of research projects funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which have examined inequalities in the incidence of and responses to child abuse and neglect between and within the four UK countries. For more information can be found here. Paul tweets using @PaulBywaters



The challenges of being part of the local government family

Catherine Staite

Local government is made up of very diverse institutions, in terms of size, tiers, geography, demography and politics. No two local authorities are the same, even those who seem similar in many ways. Each has a unique combination of history, cultures, structures, systems and relationships.  Each will have different strengths and weakness. Some councils are flourishing and others are floundering. Yet we often refer to ‘local government’ as if it was one thing, when it clearly is not.  Some of that sense of ‘family’ has its roots in long traditions of competitiveness and rivalry as well as cooperation and mutual support. Some can be traced back to the need to be united against the ‘common enemy’ – an over-centralised and capricious central government machine – regardless of any allegiance owed by local politicians to their party when in power.

Local government has occupied a rather eminent moral high ground in recent years.  Demonstrably the most efficient part of the public sector, it has remained remarkably resilient in the face of cuts which would have brought any other sector to its knees.  Many councils have used the pressure, generated by cuts in income from central government, to drive change, experimentation and innovation but others have not.  Some have become highly commercial, with varying degrees of success, while others seek to avoid all risk. Some have streamlined their corporate functions and outsourced support services, in order to be able to focus their remaining resources on frontline services.  Some have engaged communities to co-produce and maintain services which were previously the sole responsibility of the council, while others have simply cut non-statutory services. Some have developed excellent and productive working relationships between officers and members. Others are known for toxic and destructive internal and external relationships.  Some are supporting and developing their staff to be adaptable, flexible and resilient. Others have downgraded their officer leadership capacity and hollowed out their organisations to the point that they cannot respond to a crisis.

In spite of so much divergence in organisational structures, systems and behaviours, the sense of being part of a family remains.  Officers and members share ideas, through writing in the trade press, meeting, talking, arguing and sharing.  That level of interaction may mislead us into thinking we have a good picture of what is going on but since the demise of the Audit Commission, no-one has an overview of the state of local government, in all its rich political and organisational diversity.  Councils are quick to boast of their achievements, as evidenced by the burgeoning awards business, but very slow to admit to their failures. Its no-one’s job to counsel, warn or intervene when misguided choices have resulted in serious risks to the vulnerable.

As is the case with our own families, the notable failure of a family member reflects badly on all. Our first reactions may be to blame them and to disassociate ourselves from them. We may say, quite rightly, that councils are sovereign bodies. They make their choices and they take the consequences. What duties, then, do other councils owe them when bad choices bring disaster? Perhaps they owe them the duties we all owe to our own family members when they go astray: to challenge them to listen, to accept responsibility, to explain themselves, to put things right but above all to learn from their failures. We should support them if they are willing to come clean and share that learning so all can take heed. That way, perhaps, some small good can come out of catastrophic failure.

Catherine Staite 02Catherine Staite is Professor of Public Management and Director of Public Service Reform at the University of Birmingham. As Director of Public Service Reform, Professor Catherine Staite leads the University’s work supporting the transformation and reform of public services, with a particular focus on the West Midlands.  As a member of INLOGOV, Catherine leads our on-line and blended programmes, Catherine also helps to support INLOGOV’s collaboration with a wide range of organisations, including the Local Government Association  and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives as well as universities in the USA, Europe, Australia and China. She was named by the Local Government Chronicle, in 2015 and 2016 as one of the top 100 most influential people in local government.

Local Government Studies – virtual special issue on budgeting

Alison Gardner & Vivien Lowndes

Anyone following the news over the last nine months might be forgiven for thinking that the UK’s relationship with austerity had taken a rollercoaster ride.  In June 2015, George Osborne told central government departments to plan for 25-40% spending cuts, citing his aim for the UK to become ‘a country that lives within its means’.  His ‘fiscal charter’ signalled a departure from a historic reliance on government borrowing financed through economic growth, towards an aspiration to consistently deliver a budget surplus from 2019-20 onwards.  Then in the 2015 autumn statement and Comprehensive Spending Review, forecast cuts to many departments were mitigated, prompting parts of the press to herald an ‘end to austerity’.  Nonetheless Osborne has since been keen to emphasise ongoing threats within the global economy, arguing that austerity remains a necessity.

From the point of view of English local authorities, continuing austerity – including a reduction in central grant funding of 60% – has been balanced against a ‘devolution revolution’: a promise of increased powers and fiscal autonomy for councils that are prepared to join together to create ‘combined authorities’ reflecting  ‘functional economic geography’.   For some local government advocates, devolution represents a long-sought opportunity for the sector to break free from Whitehall’s straightjacket of fiscal control.  However, from a critical perspective, devolution may also represent a diversion:  a convenient sleight of hand that allows the government to disavow responsibility for underfunded local services, whilst breaking Labour’s urban power base in the cities, and increasing central leverage over core areas of policy.

Our new article ‘Local Governance under the Conservatives: Super Austerity, Devolution and the Smarter State’ argues that – despite reports of a ‘flat’ comprehensive spending review funding settlement –  local government is in fact entering a period of super-austerity, underpinned by a consistent trajectory towards reducing the size of the local state.  Cuts, such as the recently announced 6.7% real terms reduction in spending power, are downplayed or obfuscated, while assumptions of growth in local sources of income will be realised unequally.  Under the Coalition government , spending cuts impacted most severely upon the poorest localities, and (despite recent changes to the DCLG grant funding formula)  future funding reductions – as well as unequal opportunities to raise income – threaten  to reinforce a distinctive geography of austerity with deepening  spatial inequalities.

Optimists point to the opportunities of devolution, reform and efficiency.  Devolution has gathered cross-party parliamentary support, and large cities such as Manchester have been keen to be at the forefront of governance innovations such as combined authorities, and devolved health spending.  Proposals to localise business rates, and allow (limited) flexibility to elected mayors in increasing council tax have also been welcomed.  However, the economic benefits arising from devolution are uncertain and disputed, playing out unevenly and over the longer term, whilst spending cuts are front-loaded.   ‘Devolution’ also effectively provides for some key functions – such as economic development – to be centralised from local government to a new sub-regional level.

In addition, rather than emerging organically as a symbol of local confidence, devolution has in recent months been focussed on strategies to mitigate local deficits, driven forward under conditions of compromise and constraint.  Progress on creating combined authorities, initiated cautiously under the 2010-2015 Coalition, was rapidly accelerated by a Treasury invitation for all local authorities to submit ‘fiscally neutral’ devolution proposals in advance of the comprehensive spending review.  The summer of 2015 saw an unseemly scramble to submit hastily negotiated proposals, with some awkward alliances constructed under the threat of further spending cuts.  The Government has also insisted on directly elected mayors as a cornerstone to devolution deals, despite a rejection of the principle across many English cities in 2012, in a move that could potentially short-circuit existing local political structures, and diminish local democratic representation.

In relation to the wider public sector, David Cameron has outlined a vision for a “smarter state”, but proposals appear to rehash new public management principles, with relatively little focus on local government.    Most local authorities are already well advanced in implementing the reforms which the government describes, and multiple studies suggest that local authorities are reaching the limits of ‘efficiencies’.   Increasingly local communities are being called upon to construct their own safety nets.

In effect, the direction of local governance under the Conservatives appears to point towards a form of ‘roll-out’ neo-liberalism, signalling an active construction of an alternative and right wing model of the local state, in contrast to the deconstructive ‘roll back’ neoliberalism practiced by the Coalition.  Whilst this brave new world will create opportunities – especially for areas that are already prospering – prospects are less certain for areas without strong local economies.  This radical transformation also implies a technocratic transfer of power, taking place with minimal public engagement.

Dr Alison Gardner and Professor Vivien Lowndes have just published Local governance under the Conservatives: super-austerity, devolution and the ‘smarter state’ in Local Government Studies. You can get free access to the paper through the virtual special issue on local authority budgeting. 


Alison Gardner

Alison Gardner has recently completed a PhD at the University of Nottingham.  Her research interests include local responses to austerity, and the changing relationship between civil society and the local state.  She previously worked in policy roles with local authorities, the IDeA, Local Government Association and the civil service.

Vivien Lowndes photo

Vivien Lowndes is Professor of Public Policy at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham UK.  She has been researching institutional change in local governance for 25 years, including recently Why Institutions Matter (Palgrave 2013).  Current work looks at gender and institutional change and the impacts of migration.

Preaching to the choir: reflections on key leadership skills for local authority chief executives – part 3: courage

Catherine Staite

Leadership is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. You are in it for the long haul and that is why courage is so important.

Maya Angelou argued that courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently and that is certainly evident in the role of chief executive. Not only do you need to keep yourself going through challenging times, you also need to be able to demonstrate courage to your staff and members. If you falter, so will they.

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Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that you have to go it alone. True, it can be lonely at the top and you can sometimes feel that you should keep your doubts, fears and frustrations to yourself. That’s a big mistake – and so many leaders make it. You are only human – very clever human, but human nonetheless.

Not only do you need support, you also need someone to tell you when you are wrong. If you isolate yourself in your leadership castle, you could be very wrong without knowing it. There’s a saying that ‘a lawyer who acts for himself has a fool for a client’ and that is just as true of chief executives who only take their own advice. You need a critical friend you can turn to, someone who will help you focus, learn from your mistakes and laugh about the sometimes crazy world that you inhabit.

Some chief executives have really strong relationships with their Leaders and each can be a good critical friend to the other. For others, their Leader is the source of many of their troubles. They definitely need to go elsewhere for support.

You need all your energy to be a strong and courageous leader, so don’t waste energy on what you can’t change. Do let go of the past. Only look back to learn from your mistakes, not to wallow in nostalgia for a misremembered past. Times may seem particularly hard –but then they always do when you are living through them. As Heraclitus said, the only thing that is constant is change. I observe the very different ways that chief executives respond to change, from seeing it as a threat to greeting it as an opportunity. The best at using the prevailing challenges of austerity to make the sort of bold changes that would never have been possible in times of plety.

Focus on building a better future for your Council and the people you all serve. To do that you should keep searching for better ways of doing things. Support your staff to do that now and they’ll carry on doing it when you are no longer there. The more talent you can develop in others, the more support you can draw on now and the better the legacy of your leadership.


Catherine Staite
Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

What does the Autumn Statement mean for local government?

Catherine Staite

This December, in contrast to the previous two years of worse than expected news, the Chancellor has revised his growth forecasts upwards and revised his debt forecasts downwards.

Figure 1 shows successive forecasts for year-on-year GDP percentage growth (at constant prices) since November 2011 It can be seen that the forecasts have been successively revised downwards by the Office for Budget Responsibility since then, as shown by arrows a, 2 and 3.  However, the latest survey of forecasts by the Treasury for this November suggests that the Chancellor will be presented in December with a higher-than-expected forecast for GDP growth – as shown by arrow 4 – for his Autumn Statement.

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Figure 1: Growth forecasts since November 2011

Up until now, local government has taken more than its fair share of the downward adjustments to spending plans. Funding for councils has fallen by an average 21% and ‘councils serving deprived areas have seen the largest reductions in funding relative to spending since 2010/11’.

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Figure 2: The variable impact of the cuts

Dealing with the problems generated by changing demographics, the economy and central government policy have increased pressure on council finances. Spending on homelessness has risen by 16% since 2011/2 and the number of looked after children increased by 10% between 2009 and 2012.  The pressure to meet rising urgent need means there is less to invest in early intervention which will save money and improve lives in the long term.

Local government has reduced its costs by cutting jobs and being more efficient.  Council’s can only cut so far before they become unable to meet their 1700 statutory duties, including protecting the most vulnerable and remain viable.

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Figure 3: Cumulative cuts for CLG and local government

Because Communities and Local Government have taken a disproportionate share of previous budget cuts, local government has also taken more than its fair share of the cuts.

The news that there will be no further cuts to local government funding in 2014/5 is to be welcomed, not least because it is a tacit acknowledgement that local authorities have risen to the challenge of becoming more efficient, in an exemplary way. Perhaps it also reflects some understanding that continued cuts would further endanger services for the most vulnerable.

Local government has wearied of the confrontational style and unrelenting unpleasantness of Eric Pickles. Perhaps, today’s news is a sign that George Osborne is interested in having a more mature and productive relationship with local government.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.