Local authorities are struggling to manage the children’s homes market, amid a shortage of suitable placements, according to a study published yesterday.
Almost half (44%) had either no publicly available or no up-to-date strategy to secure sufficient local accommodation for looked-after children, found an analysis by What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC).
This is despite this being a requirement of statutory guidance on councils’ Children Act 1989 duty to, as far as reasonably practicable, take steps to secure enough suitable accommodation locally for children in care, consistent with their welfare.
The lack of a strategy would also limit councils’ ability to communicate information about expected demand to providers, said What Works, who was commissioned to undertake the study by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.
Little analysis of local supply
However, the centre also found significant deficiencies in the strategies of the 84 English councils with an up-to-date plan.
Just 28% had a clear statement of whether they were under or over-supplied with residential provision or numerical information on the number of placements. Others stated they had insufficient placements, but without analysing underlying factors, or provided just a partial or no analysis of local supply.
While most strategies contained information on providers’ costs, just 12 discussed price trends.
Just 34% reported changes in their demand for residential care and, while 41% provided forecasts of future need, just 10% presented a clear methodology for these estimates.
‘Lack of transparent information on future need’
“It is thus unclear how LAs can meaningfully engage with providers given that – based on the material presented in the sufficiency strategies – LAs do not have transparent and/or reliable information around future need,” the report said.
“This is a key area in need of improvement, considering that an analysis of previous and future demand constitutes the foundation of a sufficiency strategy.”
WWCSC said it was unclear whether children, young people and providers had been consulted as part of most councils sufficiency strategies, and that this was a “key area of concern” and should be better reported in future strategies.
It also found few councils were clear in reflecting on how they had progressed since previous strategies and called on authorities to better document how they had implemented different commissioning approaches.
Significant barriers to local placements
The report found significant barriers to councils placing children locally, notably competing with other authorities for placements, which was even a problem in those councils who said they were over-supplied.
Some councils also described deficient local provision, unsuited to accommodating emergency, specialist or therapeutic placements.
Many councils said it was difficult to compare prices across different providers as these costs would often vary depending on occupancy, the children’s varying care packages and the urgency of a placement.
They suggested that being better able to understand the true value for money of a placement would improve commissioning decisions.
Most councils were part of a regional commissioning framework, but many reported that these were not as effective as they hoped in improving access to high-quality and good-value placements due to some authorities and providers not taking part.
Councils ‘failing to navigate and shape market’ – MacAlister
Josh MacAlister, chair of the care review, set to publish in late spring, said the report showed that “on top of dealing with budget cuts, too many local authorities are failing to navigate and shape the marketised system of care for children”.
“Too often this means children are moved around the country, unable to stay at their school, remain in touch with their brothers or sisters or build new relationships that will last,” he said.
“The review will be making detailed recommendations to address this when we report in the spring.”
The What Works report also comes on the eve of the Competition and Markets Authority’s final report of its study on the children’s social care market this week, which MacAlister said he was looking forward to reading.
It also comes amid rising concerns among charities, local authorities and, latterly, children’s minister Will Quince, about levels of profits in a market Quince described as “broken” due to demand far exceeding supply.
Directors: providers able to ‘pick and choose’ referrals
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said that, currently, providers were able to “pick and choose” which referrals to accept or not, due to the scarcity of placements.
“Local authorities are working hard to overcome the sufficiency challenges they face including by investing in their own children’s homes but need more support from government to ensure the right homes are available in the right places,” said Matt Dunkley, chair of the ADCS’s resources and sustainability policy committee.
He said councils were open to learning from what worked but added that improved commissioning “was not a panacea”.
“We also need a comprehensive placement strategy which addresses shortages across all types of placements to meet the needs of children and young people,” Dunkley added.
The Local Government Association said it had become more difficult for councils to find appropriate children’s homes as they were increasingly provided by the private sector and children’s needs had become more complex.
“While councils are working hard to improve sufficiency, this is challenging in a context in which staff capacity is under more pressure than ever and ownership of homes for children in care is increasingly concentrated in a small number of very large providers,” it said.