Alison O’Sullivan, ex-President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and Director of Children at Kirklees Council.

Local authorities are leaders in ‘place shaping’. We have extensive experience and knowledge of working across a multitude of partnerships with different agencies to ensure our services meet the needs of the local population, particularly the most vulnerable. Now the devolution era acknowledges the role of councils as ‘place shapers’ after decades of centralised reforms and this has the potential to truly put us back in ‘the driver’s seat’ - so that we can utilise new powers to restructure and reshape provision in our communities in a way that has the best interests of local residents at the heart of each and every decision.

We have heard a lot about the discussions that have been taking place so far and it has become clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model to devolution. Instead each arrangement must take into consideration the needs and wants of its citizens and each local authority must use their local knowledge and expertise to do the best for their communities.

So far the arrangements have taken many different shapes and sizes; we have heard of plans to allow for greater control of local transport and infrastructure, housing and planning and business support and innovation. Not to mention councils raising more of the money spent locally to encourage economic growth in their area. More specifically we have heard about Smart Ticketing across Greater Manchester’s transport, greater influence over investment decisions on skills, businesses and transport in South Yorkshire and a new additional £36 million a year funding allocation over 30 years to be invested to drive growth across the West Midlands.  

‘Devo Manc’ is the vanguard and no other regional deal has yet managed to secure the same freedoms afforded to Greater Manchester in terms of the devolvement of the region’s £6 billion health and social care budget. This is truly a transformative sum. But however different each devolution arrangement may be, they all have one thing in common: they all highlight our ambitions to improve outcomes for the communities that we serve. And if done well these new arrangements have the potential to provide local authorities with greater flexibility to promote the wellbeing of local people - something I know that we all feel strongly about.

Whilst plans are being made to work in locally owned and locally designed ways, it feels as though we are not yet making the most of the opportunity in front of us. So a key question for me as a director of children’s services is - what could these deals mean for our children?

As a director of children’s services my role is to advocate and promote the best interests of the children, young people and their families living in Kirklees; I and my fellow DCSs across the country must ensure that their needs remain the driving force in our thinking when considering new arrangements. This could be through area-wide school improvement arrangements; regional adoption agencies; streamlined local partnership arrangements; or creative safeguarding partnerships.

We know that the most effective services are those that are shaped by the opinions of children and young people themselves. And that if children are happy and safe from harm this can and does have a positive impact on all other aspects of society. You only have to look at the example of the Child Friendly Leeds initiative, which aims to make the city the best place for children and young people to grow up in, to see the positive results of placing children and children’s services firmly at the heart of all plans. If we took a similar stance when looking at our devolved arrangements, particularly if we can make visible the critical link between our children being the best they can be and the contribution they then make to our economic prosperity, think of what we could achieve.

And we must ensure that when we are reimagining ways of working in devolved arrangements, we capture the contribution from all parts of the system.  We are seeing new vibrant approaches to adoption, bringing together statutory, voluntary and community organisations. This approach can be applied more broadly to other areas of work.

The extended period of austerity is now placing real pressure on local authorities’ ability to adequately fund children’s services.  And funding for prevention and early intervention is even more under threat.  So it is vitally important that we work together to fund new and creative ways of sustaining early help for struggling families.  Linking together early help with the role of schools and the early years’ agenda offers real opportunities to help children get a better start in life, by improving social mobility and giving more parents the chance to get back to work, leading to local economic growth.

A good number of the local deals agreed to date include greater control over post-16 skills and education - but this too needs to be linked to schools if it is to be effective. Schools should be at the heart of the devolution deal, not just at the fringes.  Local people expect local elected representatives to know local schools and the strength of this connection can be harnessed to create new collaborative approaches with schools at the heart of local communities.

What will be important as we work in these new-found arrangements is to be clear about local need and how the system overall works together to meet that need. We will need to be sharper and more astute about commissioning and what is needed. And this commissioning must be a collaborative enterprise too. No doubt some will say that working at different scales and across different geographies will complicate our ways of working – and it will. But the prize is opening up new creative opportunities and driving out inefficiency across the system too.

We have been presented with an exciting chance to put children centre stage in the development of devolved arrangements. The success and wellbeing of children is fundamental to the success of our society as a whole and our strong regional arrangements are well-placed to both support and to lead these conversations. Happier, healthier children will grow up to be active citizens and make a positive contribution to our communities, thus breaking the cycle of poverty and neglect that can exist in the most vulnerable families. We must remember this as we start to think about how we include children and young people in these arrangements.