The Conservative Group on Bradford Council says Labour leadership has tried to “hide its failings” regarding the protection of vulnerable children behind problems being faced by councils throughout the country.

Council bosses have been accused of “smoke and mirrors” and one Conservative Councillor has raised fears that Bradford faces a dire financial future.

But the Council’s Leader has said much of Bradford’s financial issues are down to a mix pf pressures on Children’s social care and a lack of funding from National Government.

Bradford Council will vote on the coming year’s budget at a meeting on Thursday. It is expected to include a 4.99 per cent Council Tax rise and a requirement for the Council to dip into its reserves to the tune of £44.299m to balance the budget.

Much of the pressure comes from the Children’s Services budget, with millions being spent on care placements for vulnerable young people, and on high paid agency staff needed to fill social worker vacancies.

A large amount of cash will also need to be invested in the Children’s Trust – an arms length organisation that will take over the running of Children’s Services from April.

Referring to the Council’s budget statement, released last week, Councillor Mike Pollard (Baildon), Conservative Group Spokesman for Finance & Projects said, “I do feel that it has something of the smoke and mirrors about it.

“Although Councils don’t go literally ‘bankrupt’ – they enter ‘creative accounting’ measures under a ‘Section 114 Notice’, Bradford is rapidly heading in that direction – a direction which has resulted in one Local Authority recently having to receive permission from the Secretary of State to increase Council Tax by no less than 15 per cent!

“The Executive’s Budget proposals have to focus on protecting key frontline services and investment in the services to support our most vulnerable children and adults. That results in a massive additional expenditure of over £60m to meet rising demand for and make improvements in, those services. The vast bulk of this investment, £57m, is due to the Council’s overspend required to fund the Children’s and Families Trust, in response to this Labour Council’s consistent failures to deliver at least adequate services for vulnerable children for at least five years now.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Councillor Mike PollardCouncillor Mike Pollard (Image: newsquest)

“£48m of the funding required to make the Council’s budget balance even in theory, will come from reserves, a tactic which is likely unsustainable for more than two years at most.

“The crucial part here is that without the need for £57m additional spending required to try beginning the process of improving Children’s Services, there would have been no need to call upon the use of any reserves for the Council to survive for another couple of years.

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“It is reasonable for the Executive to highlight the increasingly ‘dysfunctional nature of the residential care market’, but the scale of Bradford’s current problem is on another level compared to the problems of most other major Local Authorities.

“It is perfectly fair for the Council to state that the Local Government Financial Climate is extremely challenging, with Local Authorities across the country facing soaring inflation, energy costs, and mounting demand for services, particularly in social care, but it is rather disingenuous for them to equate Bradford Council’s problems with those of the other councils.

“The £57m pressure caused by the need for Bradford Council to hand over the provision of Children’s Services to the new Bradford Children’s and Families Trust is a unique, home grown and wholly avoidable financial disaster which has been at least five years in the making. Inadequate services were first identified by OFSTED in September 2018, then reconfirmed as inadequate in December with OFSTED having conducted seven monitoring visits in between.

“The Council’s statement is at pains to stress that the 4.99 per cent maximum Council Tax increase to be imposed in April is the government’s preference, yet only 37 per cent of the Metropolitan District Councils initially surveyed by the Local Government Chronicle share Bradford’s intention to impose the maximum increase. All councils decide their own Council Tax rises and it is due to a history of bad prioritisation and providing inadequate services for children and families, which leaves Bradford in a financial quagmire requiring the maximum increase allowed and within two years of running out of money.”

In response to Cllr Pollard’s comments, Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe, Leader of Bradford Council, said: “We are having to invest a significant amount into the Children’s and Families Trust and into those services to protect vulnerable children and adults. This is the right thing to do. There are multiple reasons for this. The Trust will cost money to run but by far and away the biggest cost pressures in children’s services are fuelled by an increasing demand brought on by an increasing number of families living in poverty, dysfunctional markets for children’s placements, as well as the need to improve. This set of challenging circumstances is not unique to Bradford and has been recognised nationally. The number of children in the care system in England right now is at the highest level on record.

“The Government recently published its children’s social care strategy which was meant to respond to some of these pressing issues nationally however they reduced the amount of funding to implement it by 80 per cent. The British Association of Social Workers England has said that the proposals appear unlikely to deliver the funding needed “to tackle the urgent crisis in children’s social care. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has also identified a national recruitment and retention challenge, leading to an increasing reliance on agency staff.

“A further challenge comes from the Government repeatedly delaying reforms to Council funding to make it fairer.

“These would have benefited Bradford district residents by £32m a year. Rishi Sunak himself is on record saying that as Chancellor he deliberately moved money away from the areas that need it most to richer areas like Tunbridge Wells.

“Government has also made it clear that they expect councils to use reserves to prop up budgets this year, despite warnings that this is not sustainable beyond next year.

“Years of Government austerity has left us having to find £310m in savings since 2011. This is combined with soaring inflation, including energy costs having increased by 118 per cent, adding £58.4m to next year’s costs.

“Even with the proposed 4.99 per cent Council Tax rises, Bradford’s Council Tax is lower than average. Three quarters of county councils nationwide have now confirmed they are increasing their council tax by the 4.99 per cent advised by the Government.

“Our budget reflects our commitment to deliver vital services to our residents at the same time as navigating an extremely challenging financial climate in this country. Nevertheless we believe that there is great potential for regeneration and growth across the district over the months and years ahead as long as the Government invests alongside the Council and supports our residents and businesses with us.”