With contributions from Warren Escadale, Chief Executive, Voluntary Sector Northwest and Stewart Lucas, Chief Executive, Lancashire Mind.

Looking through the lens of devolution from a voluntary sector perspective; what will the year 2020 hold for children’s services across Lancashire?  What will this mean for budgets, democracy and working together?

It’s both glib and true that children are our future. But it’s important to know that this was essentially the key finding of the Independent Economic Review that underpins all of Greater Manchester’s strategic work, theories of change, and is a key element in understanding how devolution might work (as a long term business case). If we want 25 year olds making positive economic contributions to the local economy (including living where they grew up), they need a good start in life, rooted in a positive idea of local community. Any long term economic strategy must take this on board.

The County Council’s vision is that every child born today in Lancashire, and every citizen, will grow up and live in a community and an environment that enable them to live healthier for longer, have a job when they leave education and achieve their full potential throughout life. Who would disagree? However, faced with the need to make savings of £262m in the next five years, on top of those already agreed within previous budget processes, living up to this vision will be a real challenge.

Looking at the numbers, the Council's Base Budget Review analysis has demonstrated that from April 2018 the County Council will not have sufficient financial resources to meet its statutory obligations, which include Children's Social Care, and the Review also indicated that the 2016-17 and 2017-18 budgets will need to rely heavily on reserves in order to set a balanced budget.

What has also been made clear from central government recently is that there's 'no new money' on the horizon. Hence it's being mooted in political circles at County Hall that the ‘only game in town’ is devolution. This would see the total central government budget for Lancashire, and the power to determine where and how the money is spent, moving from Whitehall along with new decision-making arrangements, an elected mayor and potentially a Lancashire-wide Combined Authority across Lancashire’s 15 local authorities.

So what's the current position on Children's Services in Lancashire? Following a recent Ofsted inspection rating of Inadequate, things could and should be a lot better, and it has been announced that the Director of Children’s Services from Blackburn will be assisting Lancashire’s management team and the Post Inspection Improvement Board to improve services to children in Lancashire. This shows that good working relationships already exist between local councils.

Despite the cuts, the County Council has approved an additional £5M investment in Children's Services. This will allow the council to increase staffing levels at the frontline, reducing staff caseloads and increasing the supportive capacity of managers. It will also create additional professional development and training opportunities to improve the quality of the practice and recording of case work.

It's hoped that the Post Inspection Improvement Board will harness knowledge, skills and expertise from across all partners including the voluntary sector. However, the council’s statement on commissioning intentions points to a reduction in contracts for services. Termed "Commissioning - but not as we know it", the statement reads: "The County Council's financial resources will be insufficient to enable us to continue to deliver effective services without considering the potential role of other public services, private and voluntary sectors, and our communities, in meeting local needs… The Council will support the voluntary, community and faith sector in an enabling capacity... We recognise that this may require investment."

Will devolution improve matters? Although the total amount of money will be the same, a combined budget potentially straddling transport, health and local authority statutory services would be significant and, with the powers to decide the distribution of these funds, the opportunity to get the money to work better for the population as whole is real. So would Lancashire's children see a benefit?

In my view there is a real chance this could happen. There is already a focus on families, prevention, health and wellbeing and local neighbourhoods in place. The opportunity through developed powers to do more to join up adult and children’s social care and with health and education could see both savings and improvements to lives of the children, families and local communities.

The challenges however are manifest. Staffing cuts, loss of leadership, skills and knowledge are set to continue. To quote a colleague “reorganisation can create the illusion of progress whilst producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation’’. This can lead to fragmentation internally and externally, with reductions in commissions, increased risk transfer to the private and independent sectors and risk-averse, overbearing technical and legal procurement systems ruling the roost. The period of transformation will be fraught with uncertainty and when new systems and powers emerge, where will democracy be? Will elected mayors and newly formed decision-making bodies be truly accountable to the people?  I’d like to hope so.

Without such a radical change, austerity, which is evidently biting hard in the north, will impact most on the most vulnerable people and communities. And what about the voluntary sector’s response to this change in Lancashire?

We don’t often make it easy for ourselves in seeking to negotiate with the council through our many and varied channels. These are often based on personal long-standing relationships - never a good thing and with wholesale staffing changes not sustainable in any case! The voluntary sector needs to change. To demonstrate that we can be cohesive; provide a clear case for investment; and operate in a clear, differentiated and structured way. To deliver high quality public services whilst harnessing the full reach and depth of the sector at grassroots level, so that people and communities can thrive with autonomy and appropriate support and intervention.

Lancashire’s voluntary sector leaders have recently pledged to get themselves ready for devolution and this has been recognised as a positive move by the Healthier Lancashire board. Whilst this work is still in progress, there is common agreement that a new independent body needs to be nurtured into being. This will take on a representation and leadership role but will not be involved in drawing down or distributing funding, leading bids or delivering services. It will be the voice of the sector, pure and simple. How this will be funded, governed and legitimized are all being looked into, but there is newfound desire to create one unified body that stands up for the sector across Lancashire.

I am confident that the sector in Lancashire can pull this off. We’ve shown the way in recent years, by joining together key providers into partnerships and consortia, winning contracts and making real the opportunity to secure significant funding from Europe through the Big Lottery Fund’s Building Better Opportunities Fund, essentially by creating a single Lancashire voluntary sector bid with an identified and recognised lead agency. All of which has produced more investment into preventative and early support services for children and families in Lancashire. Independent evaluation shows how by being collective and working together, we’ve managed to improve children’s lives.

Whilst I remain optimistic for the sector in the long run, as I mentioned earlier, the next few years of transformation will be really tough: all I can say is watch this space.