Wigan Council

Creating Stable Homes

Briefly describe the initiative/ project/service; please include your aims and objectives

Nationally it is recognised that there are concerns with the supply of high-quality homes for cared for children and young people. The extent of the issue is captured in the 2022 report by the Competition and Markets Authority. The headlines from this report outline a national shortage of beds. Much of the beds available tend to be at a distance. The decision to scale up provision, expanding services rests with the providers and this is often dependent on backing from investors and the banking sector.

Unfortunately, this means that the market does not always meet local needs and puts commissioners in a passive role, purchasing rather than commissioning. The CMA report also highlights other challenges which compromise the market such as the rigor and scrutiny of the Regulator (OFSTED). This is most apparent for children and young people who have more complex needs such as childhood trauma, a learning disability or attachment needs and the ability of the providers to meet these. Local planning considerations can also be testing and subject to interpretation, bringing a lack of consistency to the approach.

A national shortage of Foster Carers further compounds the issue leaving commissioners with reduced options. This can increase the dependency on the residential sector. Consequently, the market has shifted to becoming more expensive with a plethora of unregulated provision which fails to meet the longer-term needs of vulnerable children. The solution was to recruit and retain more Foster Carers and identify more local provision. In doing this commissioners gained greater influence and achieve cost avoidance.

Wigan Council identified its increasing need for high quality local residential services for children and young people, with complex needs. Wigan developed a brief which highlighted the following objectives:
• To place more children who need family-based care in their local area.
• To reshape the market and in doing so to lay the foundations for Children’s Services to increase its influence.
• To increase in-borough bed availability to meet sufficiency requirements.
• To increase choice for Wigan’s cared for Children and Young People.
• To mitigate against market risk.
• To address the lack of residential workforce which is having a critical impact on the availability of services.

This proactive partnership approach, reset the relationship between local authority commissioners and local small, medium enterprises. Working closely together, forming a supportive provider Forum the project succeeded in creating more affordable, high quality stable homes for our most vulnerable children. This programme of market shaping is aligned to the key drivers in the Independent Review of Childrens Care ‘Stable Lives, Built on Love’, the ADCS priorities for the Northwest region and local key sufficiency challenges. In a national context, Children’s Social Care services are continuing to face significant financial pressures. A report by CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) on trends in children’s services spending found that Local Authorities spent £11.1 billion on children’s social care in 2021/22, a 41% rise in real terms compared with 2009, whilst the children’s population grew by less than 10% over the same period. Wigan is no exception to this challenge.

In Wigan, in line with the national landscape, there has been growing demand placed on Children’s Social Care and Early Help services with children and families presenting with increasing complex needs. Whilst Wigan has successfully mitigated much of this through investment in improving the quality of Children’s Social Care and developing early help and prevention services, demand has still increased. The population of Children in Care has increased by 51% over the last 5 years (in March 2018, there were 448 children in care and by March 2023 this had increased to 678). This increase reflects a realignment of thresholds to ensure we are supporting the right children in our care. This rise compromised our ability to place children within the borough as our internal capacity could not keep pace with the rate of children entering care. 

What are the key achievements?

This initiative has involved ‘fast track’ planning applications for providers, designated relationship managers for children’s homes and Independent Fostering Agencies. This has also involved better connectivity with specialist teams, e.g., Complex Safeguarding, Youth Offending Team, Early Help & Prevention, a Registered Managers Forum that shares good practice and business model advice to providers to meet needs more effectively in line with the sufficiency requirements in Wigan. As result of increased influence on the local homes market through consistent direct engagement with providers. The impact for our children in care has meant that more children are living locally, keeping them connected to their valuable support networks. 69% of children in care were placed within the Local Authority boundary on 31st March 2023. On 31st March 2022, the national average for children living in borough was 57%, 59% for statistical neighbours and 62% across the Northwest, this shows an increase of children placed in borough as a result of our work. Of those children living in borough, 75% were with a foster family which includes in house fostering, friends and family and IFAs. 5.8% were in a residential children’s home (internal house and with private providers. The number of providers we have engaged with is 40. This has resulted in new provision available to Wigan totaling 19 beds. 2 pipeline provision were also developed in the short to medium term to be opened in Wigan resulting in 10 beds. Therefore, we are able to demonstrate annualised cashable savings generated of £1.2m This results in further annualised cost avoidance of £0.4m – £3.5m.

At quarter 1 2023/2024, our tracking data showed that for the first time in 4 years we reported an average weekly residential cost below the Northwest average. Therefore, it is innovative that we have increased access to placements at a reduced cost against a national picture of increasing demand and a competitive market. In addition to the financial outcomes, we have seen a significant improvement in commissioner / provider engagement and stronger relationships.

Since beginning the programme of work, we have received positive feedback from our providers:
• “We really enjoyed participating in the Forum today, we would be really interested in the Step Into Residential Scheme you are proposing”.
• CEO Applecast hosted a Christmas event for our foster carers and said “I think this is a small token of thanks to the carers for the work they complete. I am so glad they felt special because they are! We have provided two events and made them feel that they have the support from Wigan Council and Applecast working in partnership. What a great partnership!!”

Other providers have also fed back:
• “We love how responsive Wigan are – prompt communication is essential when there might be a match”.
• “No other authorities call monthly to see how we are doing – this means a lot to us and builds trust.”
• “We really like meetings to discuss referrals – not just paper referrals. ‘Hard to place’ meetings”
• “They like it when we send a summary of all children we are searching for in a table – this is useful – quick snapshot”

Some evidence from the recent refurbishment of one of our homes for our care leavers shows excellent cross departmental working across the organisation and with partners:
“We got there!”
“What a positive site visit today. The building is looking great now, all furnishings ordered”.
“Can I just congratulate you all on what a fantastic Wigan Team effort this has been – working cross departmentally to make a move on home for Care Leavers. This is a new model for Wigan and we’ve all learnt a lot along the way. Hopefully the first of many such projects to enable Care experienced young people who want to live together, as a transition to their long-term permanent tenancies, to do so safely and with support. The first three young adults have been matched and work will be underway from today (Friday 8th December) to prepare them for moving in in the New Year”. 

How Innovative is your initiative?

This nomination is creative and innovative because it challenges the traditional provider and commissioner relationship dynamic, embracing a more proactive partnership approach. Consultation with residential children’s homes and IFA providers have helped us appreciate the need to ensure our children and Wigan as a Local Authority need to stand out from the rest, given the volume of referrals they receive. Therefore, we needed to be confident that our approach in working with them differentiates us from others. Relational commissioning sits at the heart of everything we do.

We know that the provider market for our cared for children is fiercely competitive and as highlighted by the Competition and Marketing Authority is profit driven. Disrupting this type of market activity takes time and forward planning with a focus on relationship investment. Keeping the child and young person at the heart of the discussions helps to focus the providers on our corporate parenting responsibility. One of our new providers is called Applecast. The organisation is a farm-based charity who we supported to register a children’s residential home on site that is exclusive to Wigan Council. Recently we have showcased their good practice, working in partnership we delivered a Summer Festival for Foster Carers and are holding Christmas Celebrations. There is a clear appetite to replicate this with other providers creating more social value. Since showcasing this other providers have undertaken garden makeovers at our short break provision, donated a summer house and provided gifts for our cared for children. At the heart of our approach has been relational commissioning. We have listened and recognised that we need to have a different and authentic approach with the market in order to achieve creating stable homes for our children and young people.

Meaningful engagement, participation and co-design with children and young people is at the heart of everything we do. Wigan prides itself on having an embedded Participation Strategy and on the extent that children and young people help to drive and shape our ambitions in a meaningful, tangible way. Sufficiency of Residential Children’s Homes is one of the key workstreams within our Transformation Strategy, so it is essential that children and young people stay at the heart of this and help us to deliver innovative services. Throughout this programme of work, the child and young people have been central to our ambition to improve our stable homes. We consulted with A Million Voices (our Children in Care Forum) to find out what was important for them in a foster family and children’s residential home. We have provided this information to our foster carers and children’s homes. This helped us to respond to the wishes and feelings of children and young people, making sure that they were heard.

Our young people have assisted in the commissioning of new provision, working with contractors to agree the design and specification of our new homes, choosing design and finish of the homes in line with their preferences.
We will continue with this work and are implementing our Young Inspector Programme where up to 30 young people are trained to inspect Children’s Services provision and report on their findings. By having our Young Inspectors visit and review the homes, they will tell us how we can improve even further. 

What are the key learning points?

We have learned of the importance of authentic engagement with the provider market and the impact that this has had on creating more stable homes for our children and young people. We have found that there have been some key ingredients in the success of our model. Post covid, we value the importance of face to face interaction and people being physically in the same room together, sharing ideas and building professional relationships. We recognise that our providers are running businesses, so it is important that we make sure that we pay our providers on time, avoiding any threat to cashflow. When a provider has worries or concerns, they can talk to us about them in a trusted way and we ensure that a Wigan family of services can help us collectively overcome any challenges. They know our door is always open and they don’t have to make an appointment.

Relationships are hugely important to us. As part of our relational approach, we are in constant dialogue with our providers. Our social work workforce speak to providers as much as we do, so we have ensured there is a consistent approach in ensuring quality products are shared with them. We have ensured that Social Work practice matches what we do from a commissioning perspective. We ensure that we share the documents that providers should receive in a timely way. As a corporate priority and commitment, directorates work together to address any barriers to improve the quality and efficiency of this market. Our providers tell us that our approach to quality assurance and onsite support is valued, in particular when they engage with the regulator Ofsted.
We have helped providers to expand their partnerships and networks ensuring that local assets are available to our cared for children. An example of this would be all cared for children in Wigan have free membership to Wigan Youth Zone and Care Leavers have free membership to leisure and gym facilities, making sure providers are connected to local assets. We have worked hard to understand the challenges that our providers face for example with their workforce. In partnership with Wigan commissioning team and eight local providers, Wigan college have developed a new ‘stepping up to social care’ course commencing in January 2024. There is a recruitment drive ongoing with target groups including veterans and the over 50s. The course has been developed to address the recruitment challenges residential and semi-independent providers experience, as this directly impacts our sufficiency. We have met regularly with the college and the eight providers to develop the course content. Each provider has committed their logo to the advertising material plus agreement to offer a student placement and an interview for a potential role at the end of the course.

We have submitted a flyer of this course as our image supporting the nomination. We ensure referrals are honest but give them the information they need to maintain their stable homes. Also, where appropriate we have given providers the permission to be creative in meeting the needs of our children and young people. We have scheduled dedicated time to focus on the changes we have needed to make, being proactive rather than
reactive. We have found that this has paid dividends. Everyone recognises their roles as corporate parents, this includes our elected members helping us to ensure our children live in stable homes in safe communities.
We are eager to share our approach in relation to market shaping with other local authorities. We have had the strategic and financial backing from other departments within the local authority to build sufficient capacity and skills in the commissioning team to address these challenges, recognising that this is not a quick fix area and needs to be maintained. Collaboratively, we pool our knowledge and expertise so we can measure ourselves against neighbours and the region. This helps us to know ourselves and understand how far we need to improve. Our providers are businesses that overlap regions, helping us to bring further acumen to the discussions. 

Additional Comments

We have now shifted our thinking and our way of working to deliver better outcomes for children and young people. Our providers have told us that this transformational piece of work sets us apart from other Local Authorities. There is a genuine willingness from providers to collaborate locally which bucks the national trend in this challenging market.