The government’s decision to lift the £1.7bn ring-fence on local authority funding in return for £1.16bn savings has been called a “double-edged sword” for children’s services.
Chancellor George Osborne outlined the move this week as part of his strategy to make £6.25bn of public sector cuts this year. Money that will continue to be ring-fenced will include that for schools, Sure Start centres and further education for 16- to 19-year-olds.
Kim Bromley-Derry, immediate past president of Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said his greatest concern about the removal of ring-fencing was that non-statutory services would suffer.
“Until it is clear which of the ring-fenced grants to local authorities will be cut, it is hard to assess the effect on services for children and young people,” he said. “But much of the work to intervene early and prevent the need for more intensive service are not statutory and will be under considerable pressure as the resources reduce.
“Increased flexibility in spending money locally is welcome, though the amount of flexibility that remains once statutory duties are fulfilled remains to be seen.”
Jasmine Ali, head of the Children’s Services Network at the Local Government Information Unit, said local authorities had to consider their new-found budget freedom with caution.
“I’m absolutely for taking the decision-making down to a local level,” she said. “But we have to be vigilant that we don’t end up working against those groups that need priority spending.
“The removal of ring-fencing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we want good local services and decision making, while, on the other, removing the ring-fence can lead local authorities to de-prioritise those who need help and support the most.”
Sir Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau said he hoped the government intended to work more collaboratively on the next round of cuts for the sector.
“Nobody is in any doubt that savings can be made but there needs to be thought put into it to ensure it doesn’t hit vital services,” he said. “They’ve brought forward these cuts very rapidly and I hope the next stage of cuts will be more collaborative to help people in the sector think them through – what looks like a quick saving doesn’t always materialise that way.”
Ennals added that no non-departmental public body should consider itself safe in the long-term after the Department for Education announced that the Children’s Workforce Development Council would have £15m cut from its budget and the National College for Leadership in Schools and Children’s Services has had £16m cut.
He said the Department for Education was reviewing all arms-length bodies in time for this autumn’s comprehensive spending review, so even those agencies and quangos excluded from this week’s cuts should not be complacent.