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Derbyshire council education chief explains over half-a-million pound payout for consultants

Tuesday, 28 May 2024 10:50

By Jon Cooper, Local Democracy Reporter

Derbyshire council’s education chief has responded to criticism concerning a half-a-million pound payout for two consultancy firms as the authority continues to battle an estimated budget shortfall of over £39m with cuts and saving plans.

Resident David Ingham questioned the logic behind the authority’s agreement to pay out £565,000 to two consultants – Populate Consulting Ltd and THJH Ltd – for strategic help on children’s services, schools and learning during a Full Council meeting, at County Hall, in Matlock, on May 22.

Mr Ingham said: “I’m unclear how this council has ended up paying somebody more than their own Head of Paid of Service, indeed more than the majority of any Council Chief Executive within the country and consider that’s right just because it’s within budget – one reliant though on delivered savings and reserve draw-down.

“Given these procurements, as per Financial Regulations, haven’t been included within the Children’s Services Department Service Plan, precisely why are these contracts operating and furthermore receiving the level of payment, especially Populate?”

Cllr Alex Dale, Cabinet member for Education, told Mr Ingham many councils use support and two consultancy firms were contracted in 2022 due to increased demands to help children with special educational needs and disabilities and for children in care placements while also helping to examine early intervention and prevention with money sourced from vacant posts and grants.

The authority paid THJH Ltd £150,000 for a year-and-a-half of work as a strategic lead for schools and learning from September 2022 to February 2024, and the council also paid Populate Consulting Ltd £415,000 for a year-and-a-half of work as a strategic partner for children’s services from October 2022 to March 2024.

Cllr Dale told the meeting: “Like many other councils across the country we use a range of support to support our services.”

He added: “During 2022 we contracted two consultancy firms to support children’s services with increased demands on SEND and costs and for children in care placements.”

Cllr Dale explained this work was aimed at looking at the needs behind early intervention and prevention care to support the council’s strong mid-term and long-term support strategy for youngsters.

The debate surfaced after the council has recently agreed to close ten out of 22 children centres despite calls from opposition Labour councillors and protesters urging the local authority to reconsider the controversial plans.

Derbyshire County Council is currently introducing a number of saving proposals and cuts as part of plans to meet an estimated budget deficit of over £39m for the 2024-2025 financial year.

The council has stated it is among many councils nationwide struggling due to reduced Government funding, the financial impact from the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation rates, rising costs, the cost of living crisis, and a growing demand on services.

Cllr Dale said that as far as Populate is concerned the arrangement covered a number of contracts rather than a single individual so any comparison with council staff pay is not valid.

The council has also stated that it is transforming the way it runs children’s services and it is using two companies to help provide ‘extra capacity’.

It added that costs have been identified within budgets and the authority will continue to use these extra resources until the end of March 2025 or sooner and it needs this external support to adapt to a changing environment.  

In opposition to the children centre closures, UNISON East Midlands has also previously claimed the council has millions of pounds left in the bank for school spaces for children with special needs and that the council is still advertising to fill high-paid jobs.  

However, Cllr Dale has stated any such money referred to by UNISON can only be used to support children with special educational needs and disabilities for education.

And the council also stated that when there are job vacancies the authority carefully considers if it can continue to provide the service without the post.

Cllr Dale stressed the money referred to by UNISON can only be used to support children with SEND for their education for special school places, alternative provision or for enhanced resource units in mainstream schools and he stressed it is important to understand that capital funding can only be spent once so this cannot be rushed.

He added: “That can only be spent once so it needs to be based on a proper, high-quality sufficiency study to ensure we provide the right sort of places in the right areas to meet the demands we are facing.

“This is not easy in a county with a geography like ours, with different needs rising in different areas and does unfortunately take time.

“Rushing to make ill-thought through decisions around allocations would mean we’d fail to adequately meet the needs of Derbyshire children and ultimately cost the taxpayer far more in the long term.”

He also stated: “To be absolutely clear, it cannot be used for any other services or to ease the pressure on the council’s revenue budget position.

“This is because provision for children with SEND is funded separately by the Department for Education via the ring-fenced Dedicated Schools Grant, and is held apart from the council’s own revenue budget.

“It is therefore also totally unrelated to our children’s centres, as Unison are seeking to suggest.”

 

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