Council racks up £3.8m overspend as children in care costs rocket

Staffordshire County Council overspent its budget by nearly £4 million last year - largely due to high demand for children's services. The council spent a total of £700.4 million on its services in 2023/24, which was £3.8 million more than it expected.

This was the result of overspends within the families and communities portfolio, with the health and care, and the economy, infrastructure and skills porfolios ending the year under budget. The largest overspend was within children's services, where spending was £9.7 million more than expected, which was mostly due to demand for children in care placements.

At the end of March, the council was looking after 1,319 children, including 88 unaccompanied asylum seekers. There was also a £2.3 million overspend in education services, which was primarily the result of increasing spending on transport for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

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A spokesman for the county council said: "Like many authorities we are continuing to see increasing costs both to support the most vulnerable children in our care and in other areas of children’s services.

"Despite these recognised pressures, through careful financial management the county council is delivering a balanced budget for this year and is on track to do so for the following five years."

Cabinet members will receive a report detailing the council's final financial outturn for 2023/24 when they meet on Wednesday. They will be asked to approve the financing of the overspend from 'general balances'.

The report to cabinet states: "At the end of March, the number of children in care (CiC) was 1,319. This is the lowest it has been all year and 66 lower than at the highest point at the end of July 2023.

"Demand remains significantly higher than the level afforded within the budget, especially for more expensive residential provision, and, given the pressure which has accumulated through the year, the CiC Placements budget and Section 17 support, exacerbated by rising costs of inflation, is £9.5 million overspent."

The report says a number of actions are being taken to reduce the expenditure, such as monitoring the thresholds for children entering care, expanding 'edge of care' provision to avoid escalation, and reviewing all existing children in care.

In relation to SEND transport, the report says that costs increased 'significantly' in 2022/23 due to rocketing inflation, with demand also rising as a result of increased numbers of children with education, health and care plans. Despite the SEND transport budget being increased last year, the service still ended the year £3 million overspent.

The council is carrying out a review to bring down SEND transport costs, looking at things such as increasing occupancy levels and identifying more efficient routes.

Underspends were recorded in services such as care commissioning (£3.97 million), adult social care and safeguarding (£1.26 million) and transport, connectivity and waste (£0.3 million).