Four in five of England’s largest councils overspend on their children’s services budget last year, with local authorities facing a surge in young people requiring care in the wake of the pandemic.
This soaring demand to help safeguard young people in 2021-22 – the year after three national lockdowns – forced 30 out of 36 county local authorities to overspend on their budgets by £317m, new analysis from the County Councils Network (CCN) reveals.
Councils in county areas saw some of the largest increases in England for referrals to children’s services, which are done when there are concerns about a young person’s safety and wellbeing. Between 2020-21 and 2021-22, there was a surge in over 20,000 extra referrals compared to a decrease of 1,400 year-on-year between 2018-19 and 2019-20, just before the pandemic struck: an increase of 8.8%. Councils say referrals are continuing to remain high due to the cost-of-living crisis.
The data is released today as part of a new report, which sets out how local authorities are supporting young people and their families despite these significant demand challenges.
The report, released as part of the CCN’s County Spotlight series, contains 18 case studies from across the country – plus stories from foster carers – which show how county local authorities are doing all they can for young people and how they are being creative with scarce funding.
The case studies are split across several themes, including prevention, managing acute demand, addressing workforce and foster carer pressures, and transforming and reforming services.
The report is released months after the government’s reforms package in children’s social care being unveiled. This includes extra investment into preventative and family services. But with the numbers of children in care at a record high, council leaders warn the funding committed is inadequate to effectively tackle the scale of the challenge.
The data in today’s County Spotlight shows:
- In total, four in five county local authorities – or 83% – overspent on their children’s services budget in 2021-22. Collectively, 30 out of 36 county authorities overspent on their budgets by a combined £316m. Nationally, all 151 councils with children’s services responsibility overspent by £946.5m.
- These overspends were driven by a surge in children requiring care. With referrals increasing in county areas by 8.8% post pandemic, the number of children in need – who require support from a local authority – rose by 16,030 between 2020-21 and 2021-22 sixteen times higher than the rise of 1,044 between 2018-19 and 2019-20, the year immediately before the pandemic. This 6% rise in county areas was higher than the national average rise of 4.9%.
- The number of children in local authority care in county areas increased by 1,079 young people over the same post-pandemic period: a 10.1% year-on-year rise. This is in contrast the months directly before the pandemic, when there was a decrease of 140 children requiring local authority care in 2019-20. Nationally, the number of children in council care is at a record high of 82,167 in 2021-22 – up from 66,180 in 2011-12.
- Despite the best efforts of local authorities, the number of foster carers has fallen dramatically year-on-year. The number of applications received by councils across England totalled 3,665 in 2021-22, down from 5,095 in 2020-21: a 28% decrease. In county areas, the number of applications to councils fell from 2,750 to 1,885 over the same time: a 31% decrease.
As the data shows, over the last few years councils have increasingly had to prioritise young people and families in crisis, rather than focusing on preventive and early help services. Council leaders say this is a ‘vicious circle’ which stores up problems for the future, but they have had little choice owing to budget pressures.
The government’s Children’s Social Care Implementation Plan, unveiled in February, has an emphasis on early help and keeping families together where possible, which is welcomed by councils. But with just £200m committed to invest in services over the next two years, local authority leaders warn this funding does not go far enough.
Cllr Keith Glazier, Children’s Services Spokesperson for the County Councils Network, said:
“These concerning figures illustrate once again the impact of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis on vulnerable families. The latest figures show a surge in referrals, as well as higher numbers of children being taken into care.
“Faced with this spike in demand, most councils in county areas have had little choice but to overspend on their children’s services budgets to protect young people. Councils are being creative within the limits of their options: today’s report illustrates many great examples of how councils have invested in services, transformed ways of working, and undertaken social worker and foster carer recruitment drives over the past few years.
“But four in five county authorities overspending is unsustainable. Council leaders know we are in a vicious circle where scarce funds are prioritised towards young people in crisis, which is why we welcomed the government’s emphasis on prevention. But £200m committed to reforming services does not go far enough, and we are calling on the next government to prioritise greater investment into early help and family services.”