Third of councils no longer run or own children’s homes

More than one-third of English councils no longer own or run any mainstream children's homes, a Community Care investigation has found, raising doubts about the future of local authority provision.

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More than one-third of English councils no longer own or run any mainstream children’s homes, a Community Care investigation has found, raising doubts about the future of local authority provision.

The investigation, based on a Freedom of Information request sent to every council in England, also revealed that almost half (49%) of local authorities have closed at least one of their children’s homes over the past three years, affecting 150 children.

View Local authority children’s homes closures in a full screen map

Of the councils that run homes, a third (33%) run only one or two. More than one-third (36%) run none at all. The figures, based on 108 responses, reveal that there are 301 local authority-run children’s homes in England, at least 16 of which will close in the next three years.

Although few councils are following in the footsteps of Essex, Gloucestershire and Lancashire – all of which have recently closed, or are planning to close, at least five homes – a large number of children’s homes face an uncertain future as councils review their placement strategies.

Nearly one-fifth (17%) of councils are planning to close at least one home or are reviewing their service. As a result, 16 homes face certain closure and 51 face an uncertain future, pending review. If all 67 were to close, local authority provision would fall by more than one-fifth (22%) over the next three years, affecting as many as 350 children.

Local authorities that have placed all their children’s homes under review include Birmingham, which runs 19 homes, housing 109 children, and Somerset, which runs nine homes (see table, below).

The moves follow several closures around the country. In June, Community Care reported that Essex Council will close its seven children’s homes by the end of the year in favour of family-based placements, while Lancashire Council will close two homes this year, and three more by 2013, under plans to cut costs and reduce the number of teenagers in residential care.

Gloucestershire Council has already closed its five mainstream children’s homes while Birmingham Council closed two this year and two last year.

Jonathan Stanley, former manager of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, said that the overall picture was not as bleak as many in the sector had feared. “There are some homes closing, but there will also be a lot of reshaping and remodelling going on to reflect local need. Some councils, such as Suffolk, are investing in their provision. So far, this dispels the myth that councils are going to start closing all their homes. Essex is still an exceptional case.”

He urged local authorities to conduct an impact assessment, looking at the long-term implications of closures: “Even being placed under review can create real anxiety in a home. We need to think about the implications of all these moves carefully because these are decisions we cannot afford to get wrong.

“In each authority it might be a local decision but it adds up to a national radical reshaping,” he added. “Closing a children’s home ends a culture that has taken many years to develop. If this is necessary, [councils should] do some contingency planning as to what happens if the new provision doesn’t gel.”

Community Care’s research also reflects a sector shift towards councils commissioning and buying far more beds from the private and independent sectors, experts have said.

This means small, independent children’s homes and single providers could be forced out of the market as councils look to buy beds under contract or from preferred suppliers.

Kevin Gallagher, chairman of the Charterhouse Group, said: “Ten years ago there were far more council-run homes and virtually no beds under contract, but there has been a massive increase in commissioning activity recently and a huge rise in councils putting their homes out to tender. All councils have residential needs, so if they aren’t running their own homes, they will be commissioning or buying it.”

In theory this is not a problem, but council tendering arrangements tend to disadvantage the smaller, independent provider, Gallagher said. “The volume of work required is disproportionately heavy on smaller homes. They don’t have the time or the man-power to complete the tendering applications.”

Prices have also become increasingly competitive, said another source. “I’ve seen tenders won on really low prices recently. Small organisations can’t possibly run services on these prices. This is a labour intensive and heavily regulated sector. There are significant costs.”

One senior residential worker agreed: “Over the last few years, council-run homes have begun to close or change shape, but the children aren’t coming to us or the other small providers. They must be going into foster care or larger, less specialist homes.”

Gallagher said it would be a concern if the state passed over all responsibility to large independent and private providers. “We could lose the localness and diversity of existing, smaller homes. It’s essential that councils commission creatively to ensure a mixed economy of care.”

Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser for children, adults and health services for Local Government Improvement and Development, said: “Councils have been steadily withdrawing from direct provision. There are many reasons such as the policy shift to family-based care, unsuitable premises and uneconomic running costs. Some, however, have consciously chosen to retain some for strategic reasons.”

What’s the threat of closure like for children in care?

Neil, 20, care leaver:

“I heard a rumour that my children’s home was closing. I asked my key worker if it was true.She explained everything and said what she could tell me and what she didn’t know herself. I think she was quite scared too.

“It was all planned carefully and we discussed my options but it was still a pretty rubbish time. To this day I don’t really know why the home had to close. Some said the neighbours signed a petition to get us closed, but I don’t want to believe that’s true.”

“I moved to a new home which was OK but I took a long time to settle. I kept worrying I’d be moved on again.”

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