Trust to take on Northamptonshire children’s services as new unitary authorities announced

Decision by government follows recommendation from children's commissioner to give services in 'inadequate' county council a fresh start

Northampton Session House
Northampton Session House (Photo: Sakhan Photography/Fotolia)

Children’s services in Northampton are to be turned over to an independent trust ahead of the struggling county’s division into two new unitary authorities in 2021, the government has said.

The announcement, made late yesterday, follows the recommendation of an independent report by Malcom Newsam, the commissioner appointed to oversee improvements at the council after an Ofsted visit last autumn found social workers “overwhelmed and drowning”.

Northamptonshire has been dogged by financial problems, with the council declaring de facto bankruptcy in 2018, and its children’s services were found to have “substantially declined” when inspectors called in October.

Newsam’s report, also published yesterday, found tentative improvements were being made but concluded services remained fragile against a long-term backdrop of management failures.

The evaluation said splitting children’s services between the two new unitary authorities, North and West Northamptonshire, was too risky, and an alternative delivery model was required.

Alternatives to council-run children’s services

Organisations that run children’s services independently of council:

    • Achieving for Children (Kingston, Richmond, Windsor and Maidenhead)
    • Brighter Futures for Children (Reading)
    • Birmingham Children’s Trust
    • Doncaster Children’s Trust
    • Sandwell Children’s Trust
    • Slough Children’s Trust
    • Together for Children (Sunderland)
    • Worcestershire Children First (from October 2019)

“An alternative delivery model is well placed to set a fresh start with a compelling vision built around social care support for vulnerable children and families without the distractions of the broader responsibilities required by local authorities,” the report said.

To date, alternative delivery models have involved either trust arrangements, whereby a council’s children’s services are turned out to a self-standing independent organisation, or combinations of authorities running children’s services over multiple areas.

Newsom said he had received an offer from another council to manage Northamptonshire’s children’s services but had significant concerns about this proposal.

Reflecting this, housing, communities and local government secretary James Brokenshire, in his written statement to Parliament on the issue yesterday, said the government wanted a trust established to run children’s services. A Northamptonshire trust would join ten other children’s services (see box) in being run independently of their local authority.

‘Fundamental culture shift required’

Newsam’s report praised recently appointed senior leaders for making positive moves to sort out services in Northamptonshire, assisted by Lincolnshire council, which has been acting as an improvement partner.

But the document made a withering assessment of the context within which social workers were having to operate in the county, concluding that a “fundamental shift” in culture was required.

“There has historically been poor communication with staff on the frontline and a failure by successive senior managers to tackle longstanding problems,” it said.

“In my visits to frontline staff they shared with me many examples of senior managers promising improvements and then not delivering it. This has led to significant mistrust by staff in the leadership of the organisation and a cynical disbelief that anything will ever get better.”

The report noted a catalogue of failures to meet targets around assessments and visits, and said that some caseloads were above 50, with 25% of posts covered by agency staff and a further 18% totally unfilled.

“The situation across services for help and protection is much more severe than these numbers would suggest, as the services to looked after children is fully staffed and has few agency staff,” it said.

‘A fresh start’

Newsam concluded that a fresh start at Northamptonshire could only realistically be achieved by disaggregating services into the new unitary authorities or by implementing an alternative delivery model.

He noted that the former option had some advantages in terms of creating two completely fresh structures, geographically aligned to other district services.

“There are many examples of new unitary councils successfully managing local government re-organisation and quickly delivering good children’s social care services,” the report said.

But Newsam concluded that expending energy on such a move could divert focus away from addressing historic systemic issues at a time when improvements were far from being bedded in. “The disastrous implications of this cannot be underestimated,” he wrote.

The report said the option of handing over management of services to another council – as with the successful partnership between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight – was “not without merit”. Newsam noted that such an arrangement could also be cheaper – in an area struggling with social work expenditure – given that it does not include the overheads incurred by the board structure of a children’s services trust.

But an expression of interest made by an unnamed authority lacked detail, Newsam said. “It is also unclear to me how the other local authority will be able to deliver the required capacity to take operational responsibility for a poorly performing service the size of Northamptonshire,” he added.

‘Once in a generation opportunity’

The children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi said the formation of a children’s trust in Northamptonshire marked an “important step” and that the new model would “be able to provide the continuity and stability that families deserve”.

Matt Golby, the leader of Northamptonshire council, said: “The introduction of these new authorities and the children’s trust is a once in a generation opportunity to recast local government in Northamptonshire to offer residents and communities better, more efficient services and more transparent and accountable governance.”

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