Developing our services for children and families

The Department for Education has published a report which looks at future options for children’s services in Kirklees.

A Children’s Commissioner was appointed to work with us following our Ofsted inspection in the autumn of 2016. The role of the Commissioner, Eleanor Brazil, was to review children’s services, to help drive improvement and to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State.

A number of options were available to Eleanor, but her recommendation is that we should enter a formal partnership with Leeds City Council which will drive and sustain improvement across children’s social care. The partnership will be in place for up to three years.

The Commissioner’s report was actually completed in March but its publication was delayed by this year’s general election. Whilst the outcome is very much what we anticipated, it’s important to stress that a great deal has changed in the six months since the report was completed.

The partnership with Leeds is something we began to establish in early 2017. This relationship is flourishing, is strongly supported by both authorities and is already having a major impact.

We have a huge commitment to developing our services and achieving the best possible outcomes for children, young people and their families. A new senior leadership team has been in place since early summer, headed by Steve Walker who is now the Director of Children’s Services for both Kirklees and Leeds.

The new arrangements have strengthened and stabilised the leadership of children’s services, which is vitally important at a challenging time. We are seeing clear evidence of progress, though we absolutely recognise there is still a long way to go.

We accept Eleanor’s findings and agree with her report. We would like to thank Eleanor for the support she provided over several months in Kirklees. We are also continuing to tackle a number of ongoing issues in children’s social care, such as implementing a new IT system, reducing social work caseloads, co-ordinating a complex area of work and recruiting more permanent staff.

As the report makes clear, “all political parties understand the challenge and have expressed strong support for whatever is needed”. The additional support which has already come from Leeds – who have been on an improvement journey of their own and have emerged as a national partner in practice – is increasing the pace of change.

The dedication of our workforce in supporting children and families is equally crucial, so it’s pleasing that Eleanor has highlighted the way staff are committed to their work and to their community. This is a very positive building block. We expect Ofsted to visit Kirklees in the near future for another monitoring visit, which will be a chance to demonstrate the progress we are undoubtedly making.

At the same time, I have always been clear that improving children’s services can never be regarded as a ‘quick fix’. Whilst we do have areas of good practice, it is a long-term challenge to bring all of our work to the same high standard. I know the rest of the leadership team are in agreement with this.

The Commissioner’s report is an important milestone and, although we have made significant improvements since it was written in March, it is helping to tighten our focus on what needs to be done. Keeping children and young people safe, achieving better outcomes and enhancing life chances is – and will remain – an absolute priority for the council and its partners.

If you would like to read the full report, it is available here.

The right leadership for Kirklees

I have said many times on here that local councils like ours are facing a time of unprecedented financial challenge and must develop a new relationship with our residents and businesses if we are to be effective in future.

Part of my role in that is to ensure that we have the right senior leadership in place to enable that to happen.

We are transforming Kirklees – from the necessary investment in technology to enable new ways of working, to the fundamental service change required to ensure we can still afford to support our most vulnerable residents in the future. Our partners also need the confidence and assurance that there is a long term team in place that they can work alongside to deliver our shared aims.

It is for that reason that Personnel Committee members have taken some key strategic decisions this week.

Most importantly we think it is important that we get on with the appointment of a permanent chief executive and alongside that permanent senior leadership at strategic Director level at the Council. Jacqui Gedman was appointed on an interim basis in February. That recruitment was based on our experience of interviewing her in an open recruitment for the post of Deputy Chief Executive earlier in 2016.The drive, leadership and pace she has brought to the organisation is evident for all to see. The transformation has picked up pace under her leadership, and she has brought in senior support to help us tackle our biggest issues.

It is clear however because of a number of on-going challenging issues facing the Council that there is a need for it to have in place permanent senior leadership to keep this Council moving forwards in the positive direction it has started along. This means putting in place a process to appoint to the post of Chief Executive permanently and sooner than originally anticipated when the decision was made last year to fill the post on an Acting basis and so we will shortly be recommending to the next ordinary meeting of Council that Jacqui Gedman be appointed permanently to the post of Chief Executive.

This will also allow us to have clarity about other posts at a senior level and take steps to fill the Strategic Director vacancies for Childrens and Economy and Infrastructure through external advert.

I believe that with that permanent  team in place sooner rather than later residents, local businesses, councillors and our partners can have confidence we will thrive in the future.

 

Funding equalities

People often criticise councillors for never agreeing – but some things feel so unjust that we can all stand together and present a united front.

The inequalities in the funding councils like ours receive from government is just such an issue.

Representatives of the Conservatives and Lib Dems joined me and some of our local MPs to lobby directly to the government.

We put our case direct to Marcus Jones – the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

In my view, our funding settlement is completely unfair in that it penalises us now for past decisions where we accepted government options available to us.

For example – we were told that if we froze our council tax, a 0% rise for our residents, we would receive the cash we would have gained from a 2% increase. That money has not been added into the base budget, it was to come through grant and now that grant has been cut. It is costing us £14 million every year.

That is on top of the disproportionate way councils like ours are affected. Kirklees is the 8th lowest funded council in the country – and the second lowest funded Metropolitan council per head of population. That is despite many areas of need.

The purpose of our meeting was to appeal directly for help to bridge our funding gap.

Kirklees is heavily dependent on its government grant, and like other authorities in a similar position, has seen a much greater cut to its overall level of funding. With our council tax and business rates funding base not as strong as most other authorities because the vast majority of properties fall in Band A and most of our businesses are SMEs, the net funding loss for the Council over the next three years will be £10.8m.

Changes to New Homes Bonus and Education Services Grant have added a real financial issue which risks undermining our financial plans.

The 2017-18 provisional figures and latest population statistics show Kirklees spending £639 per head of population. The average for mets is £747.

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The combined impact of a fundamentally unfair distribution, an existing low funding base, rising demands, and the additional negative impact of the changes I mentioned earlier means there is an unprecedented shortfall, which we have limited options to put right.

We have saved almost £130 million already. Our future savings plans risk being harmed by government policy. Local residents and businesses are the ones paying the price for that, and all can see the inequality in this. A united front to government was important – it is only that way that they see that our efforts are not posturing or playing politics – they are real, and urgent, and  vital to stop us losing more and more vital services.

 

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Update on the Kirklees local plan

We are now at the stage where we need to agree on our Local plan – the blueprint for the next 15 years of development and employment decisions.

As a reminder, we need to find space for about 31,000 homes and enough development land to sustain the thriving economy we all want to see. Having a plan is not a choice – government tells us we must have one in place, and they are also the referee on whether our plan is acceptable – or sound.

Which is why we have a problem come the council meetings next week, because what is acceptable to government may not be acceptable to local residents, businesses or councillors or any of our MPs. But without a sound plan – however politically difficult that is – we lose all control of the process.

So where should local residents make their views known? If they come to council, we still have to agree a plan that is sound before one that is politically united.

I think therefore that the best place for them to make representations is to the planning inspector themselves.

Cabinet will receive an officer document on the basis that this is a sound plan, one which we believe will be found to be sound by the Planning Inspectorate.

 It is really important that the plan is found to be sound because if we are in a position where there is no plan at all, the Secretary of State would intervene and impose a plan on us.

If no plan is in place, we would have much less control over planning processes, so it would be difficult if not impossible to safeguard our urban greenspace or our green belt. That would continue to be at risk. We have already lost almost all control over “provisional open land”.

The test is of soundness in relation to planning law and guidelines as set by national government rather than political acceptance.

The process allows for people to make representations to the Planning Inspectorate. I believe that people should come forward to make objections or support applications at that stage where they can be judged on their merit.

I believe all political groups on the council, while probably not agreeing entirely with the proposals as they stand, understand and recognise the need for us to have a sound plan in place. I think they believe the proposals we have are sound, although politically they are difficult. The issue is bigger than any piece of land in any individual ward, and I am asking all councillors to see that bigger picture.

We will discuss the Local Plan on Wednesday and I am sure it will be lively – but we all know that the person we really have to convince is the inspector, and he or she will not be in the room.

Quarterly budget update

The huge financial challenges facing the council are back in the spotlight after the publication of a new report.

The document, which was discussed at this week’s Cabinet meeting, shows a potential budget overspend for the current financial year, even though we’ve continued working exceptionally hard to save money wherever possible.

It’s a result of the ever-growing demand for social care – in both children and adult services – which means there’s greater pressure to look after vulnerable people in our communities. For example, people are living longer with more complex needs such as dementia, while we have a duty to keep children safe from harm. At the same time, of course, we are having to deal with further cuts in the funding we receive from central government.

The figures suggest that current spending would lead to a two per cent overspend this year, which equates to £6million and would put even more strain on council resources. Sometimes people ask me why we don’t use our reserves to plug some of the financial gaps, but we are already doing that in a carefully managed way.

There are problems with using up your reserves. For example, you can only spend them once – once they’re gone, they’re gone. If we had taken certain people’s advice a few years ago and started spending reserves without proper controls, they would have run out long ago. Instead we’ve been careful and responsible. Yet, at the current rate of spending, our reserves will still be at a critical level by midway through next year – that’s the serious reality of our economic situation.

Following this week’s Cabinet, plans are being developed to reduce the predicted overspend and we will continue monitoring spending. I have asked for detailed reports, on a quarterly basis, to monitor progress against the budget.

It’s vital to remember that, overall in Kirklees, we’ve already responded to government cutbacks by saving more than £106million, with another £29million planned over the next few years. There’s no doubt that northern areas are being disproportionately hit. Add the figures for all of West Yorkshire and the combined cuts forced on Bradford, Calderdale, Leeds, Wakefield and Kirklees are upward of £700million, with lots more to come…….the figures are astonishing.

New spending pressures appear all the time and local councils are being given more and more responsibilities, yet there’s no end in sight to the cuts we need to make. You have to ask: When central government are drawing so much money from the people of Kirklees through income streams like VAT, income tax and vehicle tax, what exactly are they giving back to the area?

That’s one reason why the Local Plan is so important. It will help us to create jobs, meet local housing need and contribute to Kirklees being a successful and vibrant place to live and work. Our financial challenge is also the biggest reason why, as a ‘New Council’, we are encouraging local people to do more for themselves and each other.

Improving support for children, young people and families

Doing things differently is very much the way forward for the council, and it’s part of the fundamental shift in the way we are shaping our services.

Whilst there might be some things affecting everybody which are stopped or reduced – for example glass collections or the cutting of grass verges – there will be a greater focus on huge, life-changing interventions for the people who need them most.

A few months ago, our budget consultation about future services showed strong support for helping those people with the greatest need. And that supports the council’s main priorities, which are:

  • Keeping vulnerable people safe and helping them to stay in control of their lives
  • Focusing on the things that only the council can do
  • Supporting communities to do more for themselves and each other

It’s also vital that we intervene early, give people the support they need and try to make sure their situation doesn’t become any worse.

Providing this early help can prevent people from needing more acute services in the future, so we save money and save resources for our hard-pressed health service at the same time as supporting vulnerable members of our community.

For a long time, we have been considering ways to improve our support for children, young people and families whilst also managing a growing demand for these services. An engagement process is running at the moment, asking for your views on the way we might work with partners and communities to support people with low level health and social care needs, ensuring they stay well and get the right help.

The fact we are changing these services is not simply down to money. Maybe the process has been accelerated by the fact we are under such huge financial pressures, but this is an area we would have looked at regardless of finance. We need to do things differently, using early help, working with other organisations and better co-ordinating services for children, young people and families.

The engagement is a chance for everyone to have their say. We want feedback from a wide cross-section of the community, including families, so please take part by visiting the website by August 7th.

At this point we are asking for your views on some of the general principles and approaches, but these will be used to develop more specific proposals. A consultation will then follow, enabling us to change services in a way which best reflects local needs.

I’m also a strong advocate of the council facilitating or promoting support groups for people of all ages. You only need to see the phenomenal success of Facebook and other social media to understand how virtual communities can link people together.

When there are networks which keep people connected with those they know and who can help them in some way, they can still receive vital support without the need for formal care services. In some cases we may need to break down barriers for people who are reluctant to go online, but social networks are another way that the council is keen to take new approaches which achieve real, long-term benefits for the people of Kirklees.

Have your say on the future of museums and galleries

The council wants your views on the future of its museums and galleries – please take part and have your say.

This is a really important process because our museums and galleries will be changing. Unfortunately it’s not a question of ‘if’ this will happen, it’s a matter of ‘how’.

I’ve talked before about funding cuts from central government causing immense pressure on council budgets. Museums and galleries are one of many, many services which need to be reshaped, but the engagement process which is currently under way isn’t just about financial savings. It’s something we should be doing anyway, because we need to make sure our visitor attractions are relevant to local people and fit for the 21st century.

We want venues which are not only high quality but also appeal to a range of people in a way that provides longer-term viability.

To me, our museums should not be about rooms full of curiosities – they should tell our local story and resonate with audiences.

Different approaches have already been trialled, for example a successful pop-up museum. We are looking to offer new ways of experiencing our collections and your views are important in shaping the future.

The council’s present museums are Dewsbury Museum in Crow Nest Park; Bagshaw Museum in Wilton Park, Batley; and Tolson Museum in Ravensknowle Park, Huddersfield. The council also manages Huddersfield Art Gallery and is responsible for two historic houses: Oakwell Hall and Country Park, Birstall; and Red House Museum, Gomersal.

The available funding means the number of sites needs to be reduced and it’s being proposed that Oakwell Hall and Country Park would stay open, along with Bagshaw Museum. Both of these sites are in North Kirklees while, in the south of the district, both Huddersfield Art Gallery and Tolson Museum would stay open for the time being.

However, to attract more visitors into a revitalised Huddersfield town centre, the council would look to develop a combined Huddersfield Museum and Art Gallery in a town-centre location still to be decided. Once this was open, Tolson Museum and the current Art Gallery would close and appropriate collections would transfer to the new site.

This would leave the three sites as Oakwell Hall and Country Park, Bagshaw Museum and a new Huddersfield Museum and Art Gallery. Other sites would close and their collections would be transferred or stored. We are mindful of the historical context of our buildings, so this would be considered when alternative uses were being found.

It’s inevitable that museums and galleries will change so, as the saying goes, doing nothing is not an option. Instead we want to hear some really constructive feedback which will help us to make difficult decisions.

You can find a lot more detail, including a survey, on our dedicated web page. Please have your say by the deadline of July 24th – thank you.