Children’s trust set to overspend its budget by a huge £20m this year
The unitary councils will have to find the money
The independent trust running children’s services in Northamptonshire has presented a bill which is almost £21m more than it had been given by the county’s two unitary councils.
With one month to go until the final closedown and report are made publicly available, Northamptonshire Children’s Trust (NCT) is currently £20.9m over its £130m annual budget that it was allocated by the two authorities.
A report to go before the north unitary’s executive on Thursday has said the main pressures are coming from placements of children in care, with a jump of almost £6m to £16m from last month.
The cost of the overspend to the north unitary will be £8.9m, with the remainder paid by the West, which pays a larger share of the trust’s budget due to its geographic size.
The amount will have to be found within a month - as all local authorities have to balance their books at the end of the financial year and are not allowed to go into deficit.
It is likely the money will come from unspent reserves or from savings made in other services within the council.
For the current financial year (2023-24) both councils have increased the amount they will give to the trust, which will have £143m to spend.
The trust, which is led by chief executive Colin Foster, has come in for some criticism in recent weeks following a damning Ofsted report about the county’s fostering services, which it manages.
The report led to the two leaders of the unitaries Cllr Jonathan Nunn and Cllr Jason Smithers putting out a joint statement to say they were extremely disappointed and wanted urgent action to rectify the issues.
Since then a number of meetings have taken place between the councils and with trust staff.
Cllr Leanne Buckingham, who is the Labour shadow for children’s services on the North unitary, has been asking questions about the fostering service for more than a year, after meeting with foster carers and said she has concerns about the transparency of the trust.
It was set up on government orders back in November 2020 after the former county council mismanaged the service as it ran up to its financial collapse.
At the time there were concerns that putting the service into an arms length organisation would lead to the councils - which have overall statutory responsibility for Northamptonshire children taken into care - having little input or oversight.
Cllr Buckingham said these fears have been proved correct and the trust itself was a ‘huge barrier’ to understanding how children were being cared for.
“Two years on and the trust should be in a better place.
“We need to understand where the [budget] leak is coming from. I am not happy about the overspend, especially as there is no transparency.
“We need to have a look at where we are and say ‘we don’t have enough children’s homes’.
She said it is very difficult ‘ to get behind’ the wall of the trust and understand the needs.
She now wants the council’s corporate parenting board to have more involvement in finding out how the children who are living in care or with foster parents are being looked after.
Cllr Jim Hakewill, who is an independent after leaving the Conservative party several years ago, had reservations before the trust was set up and said its creation was driven by political dogma rather than evidence that trusts were better at managing children’s services than councils.
“There was just the desire to break up the county council for political reasons rather than looking at the problem. The problem is still with us, rather that it is now on two councils rather than one.”
He said he did not blame the efforts of those working within the trust, as he said they are doing their ‘level best’ to make improvements at the trust. He said local councillors and the council’s leadership needed to be more supportive of the organisation.
We asked the trust whether the costs had risen due to increasing numbers of children coming into the service.
“There has been an increase in demand and complexity of young people requiring support. In addition, the demand for homes for children to live is an area of significant pressure and challenge as the independent sector battles with rising costs, the original contract sum was always going to be under pressure due to demand.”
We also asked what it is doing to reduce the overspend.
“WNC, NNC and NCT are working together on a number of projects to try and mitigate this pressure, including increased in-house provisions as well as an improved early help offer.
“One of the projects is the Valuing Care Programme, which looks at how we best support children with the most complex needs. This approach will see us working with and in the best interest of the child or young person to ensure they are supported to achieve better outcomes and places to live that meet their need, with an additional benefit of ensuring best value for the councils and NCT.
“NCT has recently commissioned two new children’s homes, one in the North and one in the West (due to open in Spring). We are continuing to work with both unitary councils to develop further provision in both West and North Northants to meet the needs of our children.
Here’s a story we published last year about the trust
*Apologies that the usual Saturday culture feature was not sent out this week. I have been having my last round of treatment and so feeling a bit ill at times, but will be finished by the end of this month, and then the normal four days a week service will resume.
What should have been published on Saturday, an interview with Corby punk band, the Flash Peasants will be sent out this weekend.