In a matter of days, the members of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP) will make a momentous decision. The result may affect the delivery of services to vulnerable children across the region. And though this will only apply to local council services, it could become a national touchstone.
The question is whether to join Safety Valve, a government intervention programme which BCP was invited to join in July 2023. I’ve been researching Safety Valve for the last year, and last month I began a petition to reject the scheme. That petition became the most-signed in BCP’s history, and it’s the reason for the forthcoming debate.
So, what is Safety Valve? And why is it so controversial? Here’s a guide to the issues.
The SEND financial bombshell.
In 2014, new statutory duties were handed to councils, covering services for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). At its heart is the Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), a safety net which sets out a child’s SEND status, and the services needed to support their access to education. There are around 1.5m children with SEND in the UK.
The principle of supporting SEND children is an essential one. In previous generations, the children may have been side-lined, discarded or expelled. But the cost of delivery has been overwhelming council finances. Almost every local authority is accumulating an overspend, pushing many to the brink of bankruptcy.
Following Covid, the government allowed councils to quarantine their SEND deficits. This override is due to expire in March 2026. But across English councils the deficit is growing, and expected to reach £3bn this year. When the override ends, most councils are likely to face insolvency.
The SEND legal minefield.
Yet councils still aren’t meeting their statutory duties, particularly for EHCPs. During 2022/23, local authorities lost 98 per cent of SEND tribunal hearings. One study estimates they spent £100m defending those lost cases.
This creates a tension for councils. Spend more on SEND to meet statutory duties and get closer to bankruptcy. Spend less on SEND to tackle the deficit and increase legal challenges. And every cut, every failed service, every legal battle, is a crisis for the families involved.
Increasingly we hear that the government isn’t giving councils enough funding. The f40 Group of councils argues that the SEND system needs an extra £4.6bn every year. Even MPs have started to call for the deficits to be paid off.
But the government’s response is Safety Valve. Under this scheme, councils agree contractually-binding targets to reduce future SEND spending. In exchange, they’re given some extra funding during the contract period. But this means reducing the service itself.
In particular, Safety Valve focuses on reductions in EHCPs and special-school places. These targets are based not on need, but on quota. Critics of Safety Valve argue this is the ultimate aim of the scheme: to reduce SEND services.
How has Safety Valve affected other councils?
Kent County Council has the biggest contract to date, and one of the biggest deficits. But it has struggled to meet its savings targets. Last year it announced plans to turbo-charge the number of EHCP pupils in mainstream schools, which was met with outrage. Kent’s SEND service is already being described as ‘in crisis’.
Stoke-on-Trent was one of the first to join the scheme, but is off-course and negotiating a year’s extension. Bury Council missed its contract targets in 2023, had its funding withdrawn, and was forced to plan cuts to school budgets and raids on reserves. Other participants from Kirklees to Kingston have resorted to similar measures. Even Dorset Council has struggled, and is apparently planning to extend its contract term too.
What is BCP’s Safety Valve plan?
BCP’s Children’s Services have been in crisis, with the council previously receiving a damning OFSTED report. And as recently as September 2023, the council’s SEND services were rated the fifth-worst-performing in England.
Last year the DfE asked BCP to draw up a plan to bring its in-year overspend down to zero within five years. In response, BCP has delivered a 15-year plan. The campaign to stop Safety Valve has identified four critical issues with the plan – and with Safety Valve generally – which are set out below.
What would be the effect on services?
BCP’s 15-year plan proposes an immediate reduction in services. This includes halving the number of EHCPs issued, increasing the proportion of SEND children in mainstream schools, and slashing 16+ support.
BCP’s own officer report cites major concerns with this approach, including deliverability, legality, and the effect on children.
Families and campaigners have expressed horror at these plans. As challenging as the current service is, they argue Safety Valve would make things worse.
How would Safety Valve affect schools?
The 15-year plan proposes to use some of the normal school budget to help pay off future deficits. This would mean a cut of 0.5 per cent in Year 1 and one per cent in future years. But BCP schools have rejected these proposals, and in a January forum meeting, school leaders voted against the transfer.
Would Safety Valve be legal?
As noted, English councils have been breaching statutory duties in almost all SEND tribunal cases, and BCP’s own SEND service has been one of the worst-performing. Campaigners argue that any scheme which reduces services, will surely increase legal exposure for BCP – a concern shared by its officers.
Will Safety Valve save BCP from bankruptcy?
The short answer is no: but this needs explanation.
By March 2024, BCP’s accumulated SEND deficit will be £63m. This is much more than its reserves, and means that whenever the government override ends, BCP will be immediately exposed to bankruptcy.
But as revealed in a recent committee meeting, Safety Valve will not address this £63m timebomb. It’s designed to reduce future overspends, not to pay off legacy deficits. And so, even if BCP joins Safety Valve, the 15-year plan would not pay off a penny of that deficit.
This is a crucial point, because it removes the main reason for BCP to accept this plan. It will not save BCP from bankruptcy.
What’s the alternative?
All the levers are held by Government – but councils can lobby for it to use them.
The f40 Group is calling for urgent action on both deficits and funding. These councils argue that responsibility for the crisis lies with government. The Safety Valve petition to BCP Council makes the same points.
On Tuesday 20 February 2024, I’ll repeat that argument, as I present this petition to BCP’s Full Council meeting. And councillors will have a chance to debate and vote on a motion to challenge the government’s approach to the SEND crisis.
The point is simple: the crisis for families and services is too big for councils to solve alone. Only government can stop this disaster from unfolding. And with dozens of councils at financial risk, it’s more than time for it to act.
You can sign the petition here.