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  • Writer's pictureJohn Copps

Regional working in children's services is growing - and is here to stay

Updated: Apr 4

John Copps says that the trend towards regional working in children’s services is here to stay, and that local authorities need to engage now or risk getting left behind. A version of this post was originally published in the MJ.

When the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care was published it was heralded as a ‘once in a generation’ chance to fix children’s social care.

One of its most headline-grabbing recommendations was its proposal for Regional Care Cooperatives (RCCs), new services that would take responsibility for commissioning fostering, residential and secure care placements on a pan-local authority footprint. RCCs was the clearest expression of a wider inclination towards regional working expressed by the Review.

If regional structures for delivering services in feels like a break from the past, it isn’t entirely without precedent. Regional Adoption Agencies (RAAs) – also cooperative arrangements between neighbouring local authorities – have been up-and-running since 2017.

Eighteen months on from the Care Review and the focus on regional structures has definitely struck a chord with policy makers. During the summer, the government kicked off its Fostering Recruitment and Retention Programme, setting a path for 10 ‘local authority clusters’ to develop joint arrangements for foster carer recruitment, as well as asking for applications from groups of local authorities to trial RCCs through two ‘pathfinders’.

What are the benefits of regional working?

The Care Review argued that regional working isn’t a nice-to-have, it is an imperative. The current approach to providing and commissioning children’s social care placements, it said, is not working.

One of the clear benefits of regional working is that it allows for economies of scale in delivery and commissioning. On their own, local authorities often find it difficult to forecast need and plan effectively. They lack the buying power to shape the market and invest in provision. Particularly where there are small numbers of children with complex needs, working at scale means offers options that would not be available to a single local authority.

There are also softer benefits. Cooperation provides more opportunity to share learning, expertise and skills. The strengths of one local authority can be complemented by the strengths of others. This has been a clear benefit of the RAA Programme, for example in sharing expertise on hard-to-place children and commissioning support for families.

What about challenges?

Implementing any new structures will require a process of change. At times, this will be painful, and is likely to involve extra costs – agreeing terms of partnership, establishing new governance, staffing, ICT and support services, and arrangements for data sharing.

Success will hinge on the mindset of local authority officers and politicians shifting to one of collaboration and sharing control. For many this will be a significant gear change, moving from a position where they have effectively competed with each other. Navigating the politics of it all will require skilled leadership and resolve.

Legislation will also need to catch up. At present, statutory responsibilities for the safety and care of children firmly lie with local authorities, albeit there are mechanisms to delegate delivery. Local authorities entering into new regional structures must be careful about acting within the law, but not so cautious that they stand still.

Equally, Ofsted’s approach to inspection is focused on the local authority as the unit of measurement. As regional working increases this poses a challenge around how to be an effective regulator.

What next?

Regional or pan-local authority working is a significant and growing part of the landscape of children’s social care. With both sides of the political divide committing to further reform of children’s services, it is here to stay.

For Director and Assistant Directors, regional working is something that can no longer be seen as a side show. Over the coming years it is set to become integral to how services are delivered. In 2024-25, Regional Adoption Agencies will be joined by both Fostering Recruitment Hubs and the pathfinder Regional Care Cooperatives.

Ambitious local authorities will see opportunity to shape this change. But all local authorities need to engage or face getting left behind. The future will depend on working together.

Read about MV’s work on the Fostering Recruitment and Retention Programme here.

Read more about MV's work in children's services here.


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