A local authority heavily criticised by Ofsted in an ‘inadequate’ judgment earlier this year has unveiled plans to cut 248 jobs across the council to fund children’s services improvements.
On Monday, Stoke-on-Trent council launched a consultation inviting members of the public to comment on proposals aimed at freeing up £5.5 million, which are also set to go before cabinet this month.
They include reviewing contracts and controls on “all non-essential spending”, as well as staffing. The money would be diverted to invest in changes to children’s services and to cover rising numbers of care placements.
Ofsted’s inspection of Stoke council published in March discovered children were being left at risk of significant harm due to cases being closed inappropriately.
Social workers were not receiving one-to-one supervision with managers, the visit found, while “reactive and crisis-driven” practice meant children were being placed chaotically into care, “frightening and unsettling” them.
The inspection report contained a long list of points for improvement, including around the development of a coherent social work framework, better practice oversight and improved staffing capacity.
A statutory direction issued by the Department for Education (DfE) in May appointed Eleanor Brazil as children’s commissioner to oversee developments at Stoke.
A report prepared for Stoke’s cabinet meeting on 20 August said the council “has been working closely with the DfE, Local Government Association (LGA) and regional improvement colleagues to take forward actions at pace”.
But an ‘Investing in Children’ programme being implemented to drive progress, combined with children in care numbers rising to 890, had placed an extra £5.5 million stress on budgets, which have been cut by £194 million since 2011, the report said.
It added that the number of children looked after by Stoke council had increased by 12% between 2017 and 2018, well above the 3% national average, and that current numbers were around 200 higher than the borough’s statistical neighbours.
The 248 job cuts proposed include 40 within adult social care. This would be achieved via a restructure to move from “traditional silos” to “a more appropriate community focused and asset based structure”, including building on integrated care teams within the NHS and links with housing.
The highest number of job cuts, 70, would be related to parks and street cleaning. Nine would be from human resources. The council said most of the planned cuts, which also include 86 vacant posts, would be met via voluntary redundancies. It is also proposing tighter controls on spending around recruitment and travel.
‘No way to rebuild the city’
Stoke’s move is the latest illustration of the pressure children’s services are exerting on reduced budgets, with many forecasting overspends as a result of care placements and agency social worker costs.
Last year Lewisham council revealed that children’s social care spending had contributed £12.6 million to a £16.5 million 2017-18 overspend.
Meanwhile Somerset council at one point warned that its children’s service costs were in danger of making it financially unsustainable – though it subsequently managed to improve its situation, including by leaving some social work posts unfilled.
Stoke council’s leader Abi Brown said that its recent Ofsted judgment had “highlighted the urgent need to make children’s services and protecting our vulnerable young people our number one priority”.
Brown added: “As a cabinet, we are committed to ensuring that improvement and investment in children’s services go hand in hand, and these mid-year proposals will allow us to redirect necessary funding so that we can make this happen.”
But Dave Warwick, an organiser with the GMB union, said: “Giving almost 250 people the boot is no way to ‘rebuild the city’ and is the sign of a council in crisis.
“Hiding devastating job cuts behind the guise of ‘investing in children’ is a particularly dirty trick,” Warwick said, adding that council bosses should look at taking pay cuts.
Community Care has contacted Unison for comment and will add a response when we receive one.