Government plans to turn West Sussex council’s children’s services over to an independent trust have been put on hold for a year after its government-appointed commissioner found the authority had made progress under its new leadership.
On commissioner John Coughlan’s recommendation, children’s minister Vicky Ford has given the council a further 12 months to prove it should keep control of its services, a year after the government ordered the ‘inadequate’ authority to start setting up a trust.
That decision had been triggered by a scathing report from Coughlan, written in October 2019, which found widespread reports of a “bullying culture” at the authority, amid substantial practice and management failings.
The trust plan was temporarily halted in the summer of 2020 to enable the authority to concentrate on its Covid-19 response, but a follow-up report from Coughlan, published last month, found the council deserved more time to prove it could keep control of its services.
This was on the back of progress made under its new leadership team – headed by director of children’s services Lucy Butler, who joined in April 2020 – and Coughlan’s concerns that the work required to launch the trust would be a “substantial distraction” that would pose a “direct risk to the improvement journey”.
Trust paused for a year
Following Coughlan’s latest report, Ford wrote to council leader Paul Marshall saying that, while it would remain subject to government intervention, work on setting up a trust should be paused to enable the council to concentrate on making further improvements.
She said that, over the next year, West Sussex would be required to work with Coughlan to build on the improvements already made and that, at the end of the period, the commissioner would recommend if progress has been strong enough to keep children’s services under the council’s control.
The children’s minister said that over the next 12 months the council needed to show “real determination, effort and energy” to deliver improvements in social work practice, warning that if “evidence comes to light that shows that the quality of service is deteriorating, or that children are unsafe, then I may consider whether services should be removed from the council”.
In his progress report, Coughlan said the “deeply unstable corporate conditions” that motivated him to recommend removing children’s services from the council no longer held, adding: “The progress the council has made in these terms has been remarkable in its scope and speed and certainly beyond what could have been reasonably expected this time last year.”
He said that Butler’s “combined experience and enthusiasm for the task is being noted by managers and staff and creating a sense of energy and direction that was previously lacking”.
The commissioner also noted that the director and her leadership team had already made “notable progress on the two key tasks of restructuring the department – to address the excessive tiers of management, and over complex children’s pathways – and introducing and embedding a stronger practice framework”.
Coughlan said that the authority was approaching a “tipping point” in setting up the trust, with the imminent appointment of a chair and dedicated project team.
He said that with the resources and attention required to fully set up the trust, it would be “hard to conceive of this not being a substantial distraction for the council and especially the DCS and her team from the critical work of service improvement”, particularly in the context of Covid.
However, he said that abandoning the trust idea altogether would be “a significant change of direction, hence the suggestion for the plan to be paused for a year.
Improvements remain ‘fragile’
Coughlan added that the council’s improvements were “fragile and inconsistent”, with deficits in social work practice and inconsistent management oversight, including in relation to supervision.
The council said it welcomed the news that the trust’s development would be paused.
Marshall said that it was a “significant step” and “demonstrates a huge amount of hard work by a great number of people but, more importantly, it is crucial for children and families living in our county”.
He added that, as Ford also made clear in her letter, the council still had a long way to go, adding:
“We are not complacent and improving the services that our children rely on remains my absolute priority.”