From Firm Platform to Sinking Ship

Regional Planning and the CHEs

The attempts to reform the Approved Schools system seemed to be working well initially, in the early 1970s. Its success was then based on a number of key factors and a major one of these was regional planning. This was a good idea that ultimately failed because of subsequent changes in local government boundaries, finance and child care practice.

Most of what I have recorded to date has been based on my reading of the history of events. In this and later chapters, I have added some data of my own that I obtained through survey, interviews etc. at the time of the later stages of the collapse of the CHE system in the late 1980s.

The 1969 Act and Regional Planning

One of the main strategies established in the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, for bringing the former Approved Schools into the mainstream of child care was regional planning. Joan Cooper, who was Chief Inspector at the Children’s Department, then based at the Home Office, at the time of the passing of the Act, summed up the purpose of the regional planning machinery when she later (1977) observed:

It was conceived as a means of planning comprehensively all types of community home… It was a move towards rational planning (a system rather than a network) based on local and regional needs across the whole spectrum of residential care for children cutting across local authority boundaries for specialised needs.

Section 35, sub-section (3) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 laid down that, “It shall be the duty of the local authorities whose areas are wholly or partly included in a planning area…to establish for the area…a body to be called the children’s regional planning committee”. The part played by this system in sustaining and modifying the CHEs is significant in understanding how they functioned. Some examples will serve to illustrate this.

The Aims of Regional Planning System

The Planning Statement of the West Midlands Children’s Regional Planning Committee (Area No.4) in 1979 stated clearly its aims. These were to estimate future need for facilities for children in care and plan their provision, to ensure by annual reviews that the facilities were adequate, to provide a directory of residential accommodation for children available in the region, and to assist the Secretary of State, by reference in all Regional Plans to assess the national situation of provision. However, the evidence suggests that not all the committees were so clear about their aims, and that few stated them explicitly.

The North Children’s Regional Planning Committee submitted a revised plan in 1978, and whilst affirming its “commitment to the principles which led to the formation of Regional Planning Committees”, the Committee did not go into detail about its objectives, assuming, no doubt, that they were well established. It saw the purpose of its revised plan as the encouragement of both efficiency and good child care practice.

The 1983 revised Regional Plan of the London Borough’s Regional Planning Committee stated that the aim of the plan (rather than the overall aims of the Committee) was to offer a framework of information and policy within which the Regional Planning Committee and individual boroughs could plan their ownways of meeting child care needs. What actually happened should be monitored and plans and forecasts adjusted accordingly.

Most of the Regions were served by Professional Advisers who presented relevant reports with recommendations for action. The decision makers in the Committees were the local authority members who, in turn, were advised by their Chief Officers, usually the Directors of Social Services. The main areas of interest were the CHEs, as the specialist resources which local authorities needed to share. Local authorities without a CHE within their boundaries depended on neighbouring authorities with such provision. Given this mutual interest, the financing of CHEs was a matter of general concern. This concern grew with the increasing costs, and the pressure on authorities to reduce public spending.

The Weak Link in the System

Within the Regional Planning Committee there was firm resolve to maintain the principle that participating local authorities retained the right and power to make their decisions concerning their individual authorities if necessary. As a result there was some resistance to the idea that an independent body, of which they constituted only one part, could make decisions which were binding on them. Joan Cooper (1976) had recognised some of the difficulties when she said:

The machinery has creaked a good deal, partly because it preceded Social Services and Local Government reorganisation and was disrupted by them, partly concerns about setting up yet another bureaucracy, and partly through the reluctance of some authorities to look beyond self-sufficiency.

Cooper, however, remained optimistic that the system would work and would be recognised as a step forward and maintained that it was a move towards a far more rational system than “the uncoordinated opportunist, adventurous developments, with serious geographic inequalities, which characterised the first half of this century”.

Others were less impressed with the Regional Planning concept and its workings. John Burns, Principal of Kingswood in Bristol, in his capacity as President of the Association of Community Home Schools, observed in 1976 that, “In many ways it seems to me that Parliament was naive in expecting this new system to work” (Burns, 1977). Although he acknowledged that, in some instances, regionalism did work, he considered it to be an incredibly patchy system. Burns held that the Secretary of State had failed to use his powers even to ensure that the Plans of adjoining Regions fitted together, saying that in some instances Plans were in actual opposition. In practice, therefore, whatever the Act laid down and whatever the Secretary of State’s powers were, it was clear that a local authority was able to act unilaterally without approval and with no meaningful consultation. Burns concluded that the difficulties encountered in persuading local authorities to co­operate to ensure an adequacy of remand home places during the currency of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 had not been heeded and that either the Minister was not willing to use his powers or, in the face of intransigence from some local authorities, could not.

Over-Provision Becomes an Issue

Towards the end of the 1970s, concerns began to emerge in Regional Planning Committees that CHEs had been over provided for in some Plans. In the North (Area 1) Plan of 1978 it was observed:

If occupancy is calculated on a basis of 100% occupancy, then there is a surplus of about 150 beds in boys and girls schools. Calculated on the basis of an 85% occupancy level, as agreed in the. regional plan, there is a surplus of approximately 35 beds in boys and girls CHEs.

Area 2, Yorkshire and Humberside, stated:

In 1971 we had (in CHEs) 1078 places with a demand for 994 places by 1975. There are currently 985 places available with a demand by 1982 for 772 places, thus giving an apparent surplus of 231 places. The Regional Planning Committee has agreed to the closure of one establishment with a loss of 58 places.

The London Boroughs Children’s Regional Planning Committee observed in its Regional Plan for 1983-88:

There is general agreement that there is an over-provision of places and the Committee is recommended to agree in principle that the number of places should be reduced in 1984 by at least 100, to be achieved by the closure of two or three establishments.

The London Boroughs suggested that among the reasons for the decline in demand for CHEs and residential placements in general were a reduction in the child population, more explicit child care policies, improved preventative services with the growth of intermediate treatment, community service and independent living, more careful scrutiny of the need to receive children into care for professional and financial reasons, earlier rehabilitation of children and continued use of penal disposals for juveniles.

The London Boroughs’ Plan, unlike the others noted above, did attempt to take an overview of the child care services in their Region and set themselves a range of objectives accordingly. They wished to redirect resources from residential care to a more flexible range of community services, to increase the proportion of children in care fostered from 30% to 46% by 1988, to reduce the demand for secure accommodation by developing small open units, with a high staff ratio, within the framework of selected CHEs and to use savings from closures to boost training for residential staff.

The other Regional Plans, referred to above, all mention the need to close some CHEs because of “a surplus of places”. They showed only a limited grasp of the overall development of child care services in their Region. Even the London Boroughs’ laudable attempts to acquire this overview failed to some extent. John Ogden, the Region’s Principal Adviser, pointed out in a letter to the author in 1984 that forecasts were already perceived as being out of date. The demand for places in regional establishments was now “expected to decrease further than anticipated because of changing policies at local level coupled with financial restrictions”. The decision as to whether or not a child was referred to a CHE was left, in the main, to the social worker and/or to Assessment Centres’ case conference recommendations. Later, from the early 1980s, chief officers of Social Services Departments had a specific policy of allowing only a limited number of such recommendations or blocking them entirely.

Pooling of Costs

Often the only tangible benefit for a local authority involved in Regional Planning was the system of pooling costs of the CHEs and access to the Regional Assessment Centres. Each Region had its own particular method of sharing out the costs. In Region 1 North, for example, all local authorities within the Region were, at the end of the financial year, repaid any excess of income from a particular establishment in proportion to the use made of the resource. In the same way any deficit was met by the user authorities, in proportion to their use. This could mean that a local authority which had occupied only 10% of the ‘child days’, as they were known, in an establishment could still find itself with a sizeable request for a deficit payment well into the new financial year. This could be all the more galling if, as seems to have often happened, no budget allowance had been made for this claw-back. Local authorities who were not in the Region did not have to face this prospect but were charged a standard 25% over the charge for regional users. In the early and mid-1970s, when demand was high, this pooling system worked well but, as year after year the user authorities were met with deficits to repay, it became far less acceptable.

In 1981 the Treasurer for the North’s Regional Planning Committee made this point quite clearly in a letter to member agencies:

/ understand that a major objection to the present arrangements is the difficulty encountered by authorities in budgeting for a deficit. It may be possible to help authorities by providing them with an estimated deficit based on actual usage in the first half of the year and projected usage in the second. I would stress however that because of the uncertainty of future usage this could only be a guide.

In the Regional Pooling system for Region 1 in 1978-79 there was a total expenditure of £4,400,158 with an overspend of £350,444. By 1980/81 there had been a dramatic increase to an expenditure of £7,167,403 and an overspend of £876,696.

The London Boroughs, with a larger number of resources and generally high costs, showed an even more dramatic rise in their pooling costs.

Total Cost of Residential Care Provision Offered by London

Region 1973-1983

2,601,307

1973/74

3,942,077

1974/75

5,677,264

1975/76

6,766,089

1976/77

7,649,444

1977/78

8,722,693

1978/79

11,481,276

1979/80

15,259,366

1980/81

17,362,881

1981/82

16,558,16 1982/83

The London Borough’s Regional Planning Report in 1983 reported that the cost of homes within the regional pooling system were a source of great concern. Expenditure on the pooled establishments had fallen for the first time in 1982/83. Nevertheless due to an unprecedented 22% drop in use, the cost per child per week had risen by over 20%. Much of the high costs were attributable to under-occupancy. Closures were recommended to assist a resolution of these problems. Figures for 1991/92 indicate that costs overall had been kept down in the London Region to just under £14 million for all regional provision. This has only been achieved by greatly reducing the number of places available so that the weekly cost per place now ranged between £738 and £2,798.

From Benefit to Hazard

Thus the pooling system, from being a tangible benefit, became a financial hazard. The Local Authorities were all pursuing policies which resulted in a rapidly diminishing demand for CHE placements. The only way of arresting the escalating costs and ensuring high occupancy would have been for local authorities to declare their belief in the value of the CHE system for more children. This they did not wish to do.

The North Region had put forward a valid reason for the Regional Planning Committees continuing to operate when the prospect of closures had first become a serious issue. In 1981 they proposed that an appraisal should be made of each CHE, listing its particular advantages and disadvantages, including the client group with whom it had had most success. Decisions on closure should only be made once this exercise had been carried out.

This role for the RPCs was also identified by the London Boroughs. They did, however, recognise the difficulties in deciding which of the CHEs should close. The members of the constituent local authorities had the responsibility for making the final decisions but they considered that there no obvious candidates for closure. It was decided to appoint a member working party to consider the issues and make recommendations about which (if any) establishment should close. The working party was comprised of seven members, made up of the Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Leader of the Minority Group together with four others. It was suggested that the working party be advised by the Committee’s own officers, together with the advice of Directors of Social Services and a co-opted member of the voluntary child care organisation. This amply illustrated the number of conflicting interests that Planning Committees attempted to accommodate.

Government Abolishes the Requirement for RPCs

Once closures began, however, local authorities often looked primarily to their own interests and simply announced to the RPCs their intentions, undermining further the value and purpose of such Committees. It was not surprising, then, that when the Government, in its Health and Social Security Adjudication Act 1983, abolished the requirement for there to be Regional Planning Committees with effect from 1 January 1984, the whole edifice of regional planning collapsed almost immediately.

Some Regions, as in the North Area 1, made short-lived attempts to sustain regional planning in a modified form. However, without such arrangements being mandatory, it soon became clear that it was not possible to gain the support of all constituent authorities in any one area. The larger authorities saw themselves as being self-sufficient in most resources; the smaller authorities had few resources to add to any pool and had to cope as well as they could, relying on the availability of surplus resources of their larger neighbours.

Responses to a survey of Regional Planning Committees, showed that the East Anglian RPC was dissolved on 1 January 1984, the West Midlands RPC was “now defunct” (letter dated 20 March 1984), “the South East Children’s Regional Planning Committee was wound up on 31 December 1983”, The Children’s Regional Planning Committee for Yorkshire and Humberside ceased to operate on 31 March 1984 and “at the time of receiving your letter most of our records had already been destroyed or disposed of”. By December 1986 only the London Boroughs’ Children’s Regional Planning Committee was fully active.

In the North West an Association of Social Service Authorities planned to continue with some form of inter-authority co-operation. In effect, however, the idea of groups of local authorities working together to plan services for children had all but vanished in a hostile economic and anti-residential climate. With the collapse of regional planning came the demise of the regional planning secretariat, and its Regional Planning Officers. These officers had often done much useful work in highlighting need, chairing working groups and amassing regional data on a range of child care issues. They were, generally, a sad loss to the child care service.

The obvious immediate impact of the demise of the pooling arrangements was to remove the insurance policy of the provider authorities that any financial losses in CHEs would be met by others in the pool. The loss of this guarantee served to speed up the closure process.

Community Homes with Education were now in the open market and unless their sponsors were either prepared to subsidise any losses or charge high weekly fees they were immediately vulnerable to closure once they became loss-making. What had once been seen as an essential resource in a range of caring and corrective facilities for children and young people was now a highly vulnerable and rapidly vanishing option for impoverished local authorities and sceptical social workers. The loss of confidence in CHEs and the growth of trust in community-based alternatives is the subject of the next chapter.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.