Tuesday, 27th November 2018

Things fall apart………..

“Things fall apart- the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world………..”

These words of WB Yeats resonate.

The bizarre nature of our current politics degenerates still further and nothing seems to be co-ordinated or connected. Like some high risk Mad Hatter’s Tea Party each silo sits in a puddle of its own illogical absurdity.

Last week I attended the conference of the County Councils Network. I felt a bit like an intruder because of course this is populated mainly by Conservatives, mainly talking to Conservatives, focused on the government funding crisis, so mostly talking about Conservatives.

There was however some real value In a workshop which looked at how the quality of children’s services is not really connected to levels of funding, which was not really a surprise but gave some insight into why national government doesn’t trust local government. Why would it if one council can achieve good outcomes on less money than another spending nearly twice as much which delivers poor outcomes?

Forgive me if I spend some time on this in this episode; the issues here go to the heart of local government and national government policy on funding local government, so I hope you think it is worth it.

Across all English local authorities, there is a variation in spending per member of the population aged 0-25.

This variation can in part be accounted for by the following five factors:

Deprivation – Higher levels of deprivation are linked to higher spend

Size of population aged 0-25 – Larger 0-25 populations are linked to lower spend

Disposable household income – Higher disposable income is linked to higher spend

Levels of unemployment – Higher unemployment is linked to higher spend

Levels of crime – Higher levels of crime are linked to higher spend

The Consultants Newton were asked to produce a report on how these factors drove spending and compare actual reported spend by local authority with a predicted spend based on the criteria above.

While there are some problems with this approach- not least the fact that the way councils each report their spend is not properly standardised (things like how they charge “back office” functions to each cost centre affects this, but you would expect that accountants would have sorted out a standard method by now!) Nevertheless, one stark example indicates why government doesn’t trust local government.

Surrey spends £423 per member of the population aged 0-25. Its expected spend based on the five criteria above would be £374, so there is already a sense of inefficiency.

But since we know that Surrey’s children’s social care services are deeply inadequate, you could see why government won’t put its hand in its pocket. (I am specific about children’s social care being inadequate as the County Council keeps saying that all its children’s services are inadequate, which is not true- its Children’s Centres are not- they were not part of the recent inspection. Government suspended the Ofsted framework for children’s centres three years ago.)

Let’s compare these figures with those for North Yorkshire- a telling comparison as they recently achieved an outstanding grade from Ofsted in all four categories:

Actual spend per person aged 0-25 £326, predicted spend based on the five criteria £425.

Now it is obvious that there is some relationship between the five criteria set out above- Deprivation is likely to be linked to low disposable household income and levels of unemployment for instance, so I am not entirely sure how much I can entirely support all the applications of the criteria entirely as a measure, but the variation across the country is huge. The highest spend I could find is Lambeth with £1037 per person in the age group against a predicted spend of £681, while neighbouring Wandsworth has figures of £518 and £567.

(As something of an aside, I was really struck by the variations in the indicator for Gross Disposable Household Income: in Lewisham the figure is £12.500 per household per annum, in Surrey it is £27,080. This is a telling statistic about the gap between rich and poor.)

You can check these figures for yourself if you are interested by reading the report at (sorry the links don’t work from my blog provider).

I am not making blanket linkages or looking to draw easy conclusions. I am looking rather to demonstrate the difficulty for government in ensuring that it funds fairly to meet the needs of a council area while adapting its funding for the characteristics and needs of the population.

Thus there will always be some kind of disconnect between what a council says it needs and the evidence for funding it to a certain level.

There is another example I happen to have to hand, which is also relevant to the arguments raised at County Hall and its perceived sense of injustice.

SCC has been arguing for some time that the funding for its highway network is inadequate as it is funded per kilometre rather than taking into account the traffic volumes which its roads suffer. The excuse for the pothole count is given as that inequity- our roads are much busier than those of other rural counties and so we need more money to maintain them.

In 2014 the government launched a consultation with highway authorities and other organisations about how capital for maintenance for highways should be allocated for the period from 2015/6 to 2020/21.

According to the Minister of State at the Department for Transport (I know, hardly the most competent department in the world!) 63% of those who responded to the consultation were against taking highway traffic volumes into consideration, so the government didn’t.

Has SCC suffered a lapse of memory, or did it not realise? If it is lobbying for a change of policy for after 20/21 that might be a good thing, but it is clear there is a severe disconnect between the council and government despite all eleven MPs being Conservative and countless Surrey MPs who are ministers or former ministers.

David Hodge has listed his disillusionment at lobbying government as one of the his reflections on him standing aside. For me the County Council’s reluctance to benchmark itself on quality has been a significant weakness and perhaps government thinks that too. It is hard to think of some measure we can cite to suggest that ministers should listen to SCC.

There are some soft measures though, which in the current context should be more eloquent than they are. I can only refer of course to what I know from personal experience.

Our children’s centres engage with families who need support, work with primary care and others to ensure that families get signposted to the appropriate agency and are a still point for many young mums in the turbulence of the months after giving birth- supporting breastfeeding, reassuring and confidence building and a refuge in all too common cases of post natal depression, domestic violence or family conflict. If they are closed so many problems will be left unresolved to build into something major in the months ahead.

I hear constantly that services shouldn’t be based on buildings; well let me tell those who utter that facile dictum- buildings are where you go if your home is not safe, you are terrified of the four walls and a crying baby, or you need somewhere else to be, to feel safe, to feel valued.

So please don’t close the children’s centres.

Surrey’s libraries are hugely valued as places for study, internet access, learning, helping children to appreciate the richness of books, and somewhere warm with other people there whom you don’t need to talk to but so you don’t feel so alone.

So please don’t close the libraries.

Surrey used to run care homes and people respected them and felt safe there. SCC closed them down four years ago and the buildings lie empty. Among the reasons given were that significant investment was required to make them compliant with modern standards and that SCC did not wish to be a provider of care, only a commissioner.

Well SCC just took a number of Anchor Homes back in house and now wants to be a direct provider of care again.

Too late. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.