Hopes a deal to sort out special educational needs debt will protect council’s future

By Ollie Heptinstall   |   Local Democracy Reporter   |
Friday 11th March 2022 7:13 am
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Dr Phil Norrey, chief executive of Devon County Council (Image: DCC) 2021
Dr Phil Norrey, chief executive of Devon County Council (Image: DCC) (DCC )

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DEVON County Council’s boss believes a government deal to address a huge overspend on special educational needs provision will protect its services.

The county’s overspend on supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) since April 2020, which is effectively debt, is projected to rise to £89 million next month.

However, as local authorities have been told to put their SEND overspends into separate ring-fenced accounts until April 2023, the figure doesn’t currently appear on Devon’s main balance sheets.

There has been growing concern about what will happen when the arrangement ends, including the potential impact on providing other services if a solution cannot be found.

Along with many other local authorities, Devon remains in negotiations with the government about dealing with the debt and changes to the funding system, which chief executive Dr Phil Norrey described as ‘broken’ earlier this year.

A report to this week’s meeting of Devon’s cabinet says ‘intervention discussions’ with the Department for Education about an ‘agreed package of support measures and actions’ will now continue into April, having previously hoped to be finalised this month.

It includes a ‘management plan’ previously developed by the county council to help tackle the overspends. However only £700,000 of the planned £6.5 million of savings is set to be achieved this year due to increasing numbers of young people up to the age of 25 who need support.

Councillors were recently told this plan also aims to increase the number of special school places provided directly by the council. They can be around four times cheaper than independent school places.

Updating the cabinet and opposition leaders on the talks on Wednesday, Dr Norrey warned there doesn’t appear to be an ‘inexhaustible amount of cash from central government to meet the cumulated deficits within local authorities’.

As a result, he said it is ‘important that we’re in negotiations now … because I think we stand a better chance of getting a higher proportion of the debt sorted out by government than if we were in a later wave.’

Dr Norrey added: ‘We need to be realistic, but I think we are getting to a place where we’ve got reason to believe that we’ll be able to come to an arrangement which protects the council’s services and the council’s long-term financial stability, albeit it won’t be everything we want.’

But he stressed: ‘They’re not easy, these negotiations, I think it’s fair to say. The government is not rolling over.’

Councillors were told the deal with the government will have two components: an agreement about how the current debt is dealt with, and an agreed plan to bring future spending back into balance.

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