‘A Mini or a Rolls Royce service?’

Cardiff Council’s Neelam Bhardwaja faces some tough choices as she sets about tackling the authority’s adults’ services overspend. She talks to Derren Hayes

“Some of my friends said it was the toughest job in the UK.”

When Neelam Bhardwaja(pictured) became the director of Cardiff Council’s adult, children and life-long learning services in December 2005 she knew what she was letting herself in for. So it should have come as no surprise that 2006 proved to be a real challenge for the director.

It started badly with the inspectors failing to lift special measures and finished with adults’ services facing up to a £7m overspend.

In between there were cuts in funding for learning difficulty services and a spat with health officials over who was to blame for high levels of delayed discharges. Many of the problems date back three years when political unrest and low staff morale led to a series of poor inspection results, and their legacy still lingers today.

Bhardwaja says it was the challenge of tackling a struggling authority – she joined Peterborough Council as a service manager when it was in a similar position – that partly attracted her to the job. “Cardiff didn’t have a very positive reputation at that time, but it is a much bigger job than my previous role as head of children’s services at Poole Council. The fact Wales still has integrated social services I found quite attractive.”

Her first task 12 months ago was to pick up the pieces after ministers and inspectors decided not to release the council’s children’s services from special measures. “People were optimistic that special measures would come to an end and were disappointed when it didn’t happen. Although we felt that was a setback, rather than dwelling on it we decided we needed to evidence improvement better.”

The restrictions were eventually lifted last summer, two years after being imposed, but no sooner had this hurdle been overcome than a new one arose. This time, the chair of Cardiff and Vale Hospital Trust publicly blamed the council’s slowness in organising care packages for a rise in the number of people being delayed in hospital. It was an unusually public spat and one which Bhardwaja, with restraint, describes as “unhelpful”.

“We had meetings with the Welsh health minister Brian Gibbons and it was made very clear to the person concerned that this was not a way to conduct business. Rather than sitting in our silo we need to sit down together and discuss how we unblock the system,” she adds. As a result of this the council went on the offensive and now publishes monthly figures on the number of delays it is responsible for. After a promising start numbers have risen recently due to a shortage of residential care places.

Despite these difficulties, the coming months promise to be the most challenging yet as Bhardwaja grapples with reducing the £7m projected overspend in adults’ services at a time when people’s needs are increasing. A freeze on all non front-line recruitment and efforts to reduce spending on agency residential staff are just some of the measures being introduced, although tough decisions on raising eligibility criteria for some services loom large.

“This is not a Cardiff phenomenon: two-thirds of Welsh local authorities are projecting an overspend. We have to be clear about the care packages we’re coming up with and ask ourselves whether we want to provide a Mini or Rolls Royce service to meet the need,” she explains.

But Bhardwaja says making tough decisions is what being a director is all about.

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