London councils’ social care merger under fire

Three of London's most prominent councils are to appoint shared directors of children's and adults' services under cost-saving plans likely to be copied elsewhere. But critics say the plans will only produce relatively small savings and may hinder change.

Three of London’s most prominent councils are to appoint shared directors of children’s and adults’ services under cost-saving plans likely to be copied elsewhere.

The proposals, by Conservative-run Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea. and Westminster, to merge a range of functions come in response to the deep cuts to council funding, announced last October.

Ministers have claimed that local authorities can minimise, or even avoid, slashing frontline services, by cutting back office functions and their management pay bills.

Under their “tri-borough” model, the councils plan to appoint joint directors of children’s and adults’ services by 2012, and merge fostering and adoption and youth offending services, as well as their local safeguarding children boards.

The number of middle and senior managers would be halved in children’s and adults’ services, as would spending on “overheads”, such as HR.

They plan to save £35m by 2014-15, £9.5m from children’s services and £9.9m from adults’ services. But these savings are relatively small.

The £35m represents 17% of the estimated cut in government funding for the three boroughs from 2011-15 (£212m).

The £9.9m for adults’ services, which will be saved over four years, represents just 4% of the combined annual budget for the service across all three boroughs.

And the three boroughs have medium-term savings targets for children’s services that are far in excess of £9.5m: £15.6m for Hammersmith and Fulham; £13m for Kensington and Chelsea and £12.3m for Westminster.

Moreover, decisions have already been taken to cut frontline services.

Westminster has increased its eligibility threshold for adult care from moderate to substantial, as part of a package of measures to save £2.75m a year by 2012-13. About 3,000 service users with moderate needs will be reassessed and will potentially lose support.

And some experts have warned that in culling so many managers, the councils will reduce their capacity to bring about more fundamental changes to the shape of services, and with them more sustainable savings.

“You can cut management but that’s a relatively small amount of people and budget and also they are the people who are going to drive through the change,” said Jeremy Cooper, director of public services consultancy iMPOWER.

The councils also plan to integrate health and adult social care. The single director of adult social care would head a joint commissioning unit with GP consortia that assume responsibility for commissioning health from 2013. And adult social care staff would transfer to the new Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust, which is responsible for community health services across the three boroughs.

But Cooper added: “Having a more integrated platform needs driving through and you’re not going to have the people around to do it. You cut off your nose to spite your face.”

He said more significant savings would involve successfully reducing or delaying demand for care, which requires management capacity. His warnings were echoed by Anna Turley, deputy director of think-tank the New Local Government Network.

“All local authorities need to make sure that they are not losing capacity for long-term transformation,” she said.

Nickie Aiken, Westminster’s cabinet member for children and young people, said the boroughs were too small to have their own children’s services departments.

“If you look at the population of Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea, it’s probably smaller than Birmingham,” she said. “Why have three people doing the director’s job when one can do it just as well?”

Daniel Astaire, Westminster’s cabinet member for society, families and adult services, said he was confident that the proposed management cuts would leave the councils with sufficient capacity to drive through change.

But he sounded a note of caution as to whether the tri-borough model would be implemented as planned. For instance, separate directors of adult social services could be retained by each borough, he said.

“The prime purpose of adult social care is to look after vulnerable residents,” he adds. “The proposal we are looking at is having one director across three boroughs. But we will pull that to pieces and see what works.”

Many in local government will be watching with interest, despite the misgivings about the plans.

“Lots of councils will be looking at this,” said Laurie Thraves, policy manager at the Local Government Information Unit. “The vast majority of councils are considering sharing services, though not to this extent. It’s a very legitimate way for councils to respond to the enormous financial pressures.”

What is clear is that this cannot be the only way in which councils respond to these pressures if they want to manage the next four years successfully.

Tri-borough proposals

Unison blasts merger plan

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