• Cuts to budgets for universal services could store up costly problems in the future
• Any future savings will have to be made from ‘front line’ service delivery
A report published today by the Family and Parenting Institute sheds new light on the challenges councils face sustaining services to families and children in austerity. Faced with tough choices, universal services are amongst the primary targets for short-term savings for councils, limiting future opportunities to intervene early before problems become crises.
Drawing on interviews and analysis of revenue spending carried out by ESRO researchers, Families on the front line? examines children’s services budgets in eight different local authorities in England over two financial years (2011–12 and 2012 -13). All were guaranteed anonymity - leading to council officers speaking candidly about their concerns for services to families.
Council officers described the efforts to shield families from the worst effects of this round of cuts, including the bold re-design and integration of services to families and sweeping cuts to back-office functions. But they predict that any further savings will be far more difficult to find – and are likely to hit front line services even harder. One council officer interviewed said: “We designed our new operating model based on a two-year recession, not a five or seven year stagnation. Who knows what the future might be like?”
Analysis of the spending in the eight local authorities reveals:
• Services which councils provide to schools (such as school improvement and education welfare) are seeing the sharpest reduction in spending over these two years. This reflects the fact that recent reforms now mean that local authorities have fewer duties towards schools, with some funding having been ‘transferred’ from the local authorities to Academies.
• Spending on those ‘non-social work’ services most associated with universal provision to families and young people (such as youth centres and early years provision in children’s centres) also shouldered a large share of spending reductions. Councils were increasingly re-focusing limited resources on targeted interventions.
• While savings were made in spending on social work and looked after children’s services, they were cancelled out by growth in spending in the same category, giving a possible signal of escalating needs amongst families.
• The extent to which cuts have so far have been ‘front-loaded’ in the first year of the spending review period. Across the eight councils, the total value of spending reductions in year one of the study was more than double that of year two.
Katherine Rake, Chief Executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, said: “We wanted to go beyond a simplistic debate about what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ cuts to understand what these changes mean for families. It’s clear councils have been working hard to deliver savings and keep up with demand locally, but we’re concerned for the future as the options for local authorities to make efficiency savings are narrowing and cuts will have to come from frontline services.
“With less money available for universal services, local authorities are inevitably focusing resources on those with highest need. This could leave us with fewer opportunities to intervene early in families, proving to be a false economy and increasing pressure on more costly services in the years to come. The fear is that many of those families who are coping at the moment will tip over into crisis in the future.”
A member of the ESRO research team said: "The people we spoke to were proud of the lengths they had gone to and the innovations they had implemented, to continue to deliver effective services in an environment of tough spending constraints. But they were also clear that if they were facing a future in which further cuts were required, the prognosis for the delivery of frontline services would be less certain."
Families on the frontline? Local Spending on children’s services in austerity is the latest report from the Family and Parenting Institute’s ongoing research programme, ‘Families in the Age of Austerity’.
• While a group of eight local authorities is not ‘representative’ of all councils, the research did source a balanced sample of councils across a set of key variables (including political control, extent of reduction in revenue spending power, levels of relative deprivation and English region).
• To analyse revenue spending cuts in Children’s Services across the eight local authorities, researchers examined publicly available accounts of spending fluctuations across two budget cycles: the financial years of 2011–12 and 2012–13. Capital expenditure was excluded from the analysis and non-children’s services spending appearing in ‘children’s services’ budgets was also eliminated. Freedom of Information requests were also used to complete the data.
• To allow for comparison, spending reductions and growths were categorised in eight, broad service areas: ‘social care and looked after children’, ‘non-social work services for young people and families’, ‘youth offending’, ‘special educational needs’, ‘Early Years’, ‘across-service spending’, and ‘non-service related expenditure’.
ESRO is an award-winning, full-service research agency, providing insight and intelligence to a wide range of public, third and commercial sector clients. ESRO works with clients to produce published reports and visuals, ensuring that research has an impact beyond the bookshelf. Specialisms include:
delivering strategic insight and evaluation of policy impacts; deep qualitative and ethnographic research with ‘hard to reach’ populations and communities; understanding customer experiences of services and products; and building evidence bases for decision-makers.
About the Family and Parenting Institute
The Family and Parenting Institute is a charity working to improve the lives of children and families now and in the future through campaigning, research and practical support.