Services funding reaching 'crisis' point warns St Helens Council director

Cath Fogarty
Cath Fogarty
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Funding for services in the borough has reached a “crisis” point, one of St Helens Council’s strategic directors has warned.

Cath Fogarty, strategic director of corporate services, was invited to the overview and scrutiny commission this week to provide an update on the council’s 2019-20 budget.

She told members there is an “unprecedented level of future of uncertainty” around the financial resources available to the authority beyond 2019-20.

Ms Fogarty said the council is required to prepare its budget for beyond 2019-20, adding that there are a range of caveats around what it can forecast with any “proper reliability”.

“What that does show is the ongoing potential for further shortfall, in terms of our budget position,” she said.

Ms Fogarty said the budget for looked after children in particular was under “immense pressure”.

At the end of November 2018 there was 465 children in care in St Helens.

The latest budget report says the annual cost in respect of looked after children has increased by approximately £4m over the previous two financial years, with further increases in 2018-19.

The authority is currently in the process of overhauling children’s services following a damning Ofsted report last August.

Labour’s Nova Charlton, ward member for Thatto Heath, said she had “huge concerns” about how the council will manage demand in children’s services as well as maximising growth given the financial constraints.

Fellow Labour councillor John Wiseman, ward member for Bold, said a recent peer review carried out by the Local Government Association in response to Ofsted’s findings highlighted the strong position of the council’s reserves.

Coun Wiseman asked the strategic director if those reserves could be used to support children’s services moving forward.

Ms Fogarty said the level of reserves the council holds are “appropriate and prudent”.

However, she said many of the reserves are “earmarked”, which means they are already set aside for specific purposes.

Ms Fogarty added that reserves should only be used as one-off investments to support longer-term growth and change.

She highlighted the decision to transfer £6m in 2018 to an existing earmarked reserve containing £6m to support the changes to children’s services.

Ms Fogarty said: “It’s recognised nationally that there is a massive financial gap, not just in children’s services but across local government generally.

“It is the council’s priority, and as part of in-year and next year we will be looking at what’s needed to support children’s services.

“This is the final year of the three-year budget strategy. Work will start over this summer in looking at what the position is going to be going forward, which in itself is a very difficult process because you’ve got no certainty about what any of the funding is going to be.

“We’ll do the best we can with what we’ve got. We know as others do that this is being lobbied nationally and we’ve provided responses to all the consultations.

“It’s a crisis to some extent and doesn’t make for good financial planning when there is so much uncertainty.”

Windle councillor David Baines, chairman of the overview and scrutiny commission, said the financial outlook was “worrying”.

Coun Baines said: “It is pretty depressing. There’s no sugar coating the situation that we’re in.

“To have the strategic director describe ‘unprecedented levels of future uncertainty’, you used the word ‘crisis’ – it’s really worrying stuff.”