Six councils in south-west London are clubbing together to commission learning difficulty services to control costs and reshape services around users' needs.
Croydon, Merton, Kingston, Richmond, Sutton and Wandsworth councils believe collaboration will give them the economies of scale to move care from residential settings to supported living.
The initiative comes amid rising pressures on learning difficulty services, as more children with complex conditions survive into adulthood and adults live longer, and rising expectations from users and their families of independent lives.
A report last year by the Association of Directors of Social Services found rising cost pressures on learning difficulty services and that in most parts of the country three-quarters of spending was on institutional day and residential services.
Under the scheme, the councils will offer providers an effective guarantee of work in exchange for agreeing to develop services in line with the local authorities' priorities.
Jeff Hobden, Merton Council's interim director of community and housing, who has led on the project, said the authorities' prime motivation was to reshape services, not cut costs, but they expected to make savings.
"The current market does not work for anyone - users, commissioners or providers," he added.
Hobden said Merton residents were placed as far away as Aberdeen and Cornwall, and provision was weighted towards residential care, even though many users favoured supported living arrangements.
However, individual councils did not have enough users to commission new services effectively and fill other gaps, such as specialist residential care services for people with challenging behaviour.
Hobden also said providers operating across borough boundaries had to meet different standards and produce multiple invoices for different authorities, increasing their costs.
He said: "The more likely we are to give them cash savings, the more likely they will be able to keep prices down."
Hobden, who is about to step down as interim director, said the authorities were recruiting a project manager to lead the scheme.
Directors' findings and recommendations
The ADSS report, Pressures on Learning Disability Services, found that services were underfunded and expenditure was directed at institutional care.
It called for a transformation fund to allow councils to invest in new services, and financial incentives to shift services from residential to community settings.
Executive summary from www.adss.org.uk/pres/2005/learningcase.shtml
Contact the author