Farnham Residents councillor Catherine Powell, the newly-elected independent group leader at Surrey County Council, has raised serious concerns about the loss of preventative services because of council cutbacks.
Cllr Powell (Farnham Residents, Farnham North) says decisions made by the county council's cabinet to cut further preventative services in recent months are already having a "terrible impact" on residents.
During the council’s annual meeting, Cllr Powell highlighted three key children’s services that have been affected, including the closure of family centres by the Conservative administration in 2019, delays in Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), and the loss of Short Breaks Services for Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) because of inflation and funding changes.
In response, the council's Conservative leader Cllr Tim Oliver said “prevention is absolutely front and centre of everything this council is doing” and he took issue with Cllr Powell regarding the impact of closing family centres, stating the closure of the centres allowed services to be moved into the community to target those most in need.
But Cllr Powell emphasised that universal access provision offered by the family centres prevented the escalation of needs and saved money in the long run. The new strategy targets those that have already met the threshold for targeted support, she said.
Cllr Powell called for a renewed focus on prevention, valuing and funding universal access services, which she said are so key in reducing the "escalation of need".
The EHCP delays and the impact that this is having on children, their families, schools and the council officers working in the system were raised by many speakers.
Cllr Oliver did acknowledge that “EHCPs are an enormous challenge to this council” and that “we need help and support from central government”.
Cllr Powell had previously raised concerns regarding delays in councillor’s having access to the impact assessments associated with the decisions being made by the cabinet and highlighted one such report at the annual meeting.
The report highlighted the strong preventative nature of the short breaks service and the concerns raised in the Equality Impact Assessment into the proposed changes, including that: “Any reductions in capacity of short breaks services due to either or both inflation linked price increases (noting importantly that Surrey County Council is currently proposing to hold the budget for short breaks in 2023/24) and any future decisions by Surrey County Council to reduce current levels of investment in these services are likely to: reduce positive outcomes for children with disabilities and their families; and increased pressure within families of children with disabilities, which is likely to, in some cases, contribute to family breakdown if this is not mitigated – leading to increased cost for the local authority.”
The same report acknowledges that since the last review of commissioning in 2017/18:
- The cost to charities to provide this service have risen sharply.
- The number of children with Education, Health and Care Plans aged 0-18 has increased by 65 per cent.
- Children accessing short breaks who require 1:1 support reached 55 per cent in 2021/22, against an original assumption of 40 per cent in 2017/18.
- Many of the charities have long waiting lists.
Cllr Powell highlighted the services that had been lost and waiting lists closed. "This is leaving these families behind," she said.
She added these impacts will not be fully addressed by the additional Department for Education’s Short Breaks Innovation Funding, despite the response from the cabinet member that it would. Cllr Powell argued that services should be reinstated now using reserves to prevent more families and children’s needs escalating without this service which the report states is a lifeline to many families.
She continued: "The Residents Association and Independent Group are committed to highlighting where the removal of preventative services is escalating needs and seek to work positively with the administration to ensure that Cllr Oliver’s statement that 'prevention is absolutely front and centre of everything this council is doing' is clearly demonstratable and visible to resident of Surrey."