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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Ex-mayor accuses council of dithering over cost-cutting children’s homes plan

Andy Preston said millions of pounds had been wasted because of the failure by Middlesbrough Council to develop its own homes for youngsters in care

Former Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston says the council “procrastinated” over plans to create more in-house children’s homes and “millions have been wasted” as a result.

A revised approach adopted by Middlesbrough Council’s decision-making executive last week will see up to five new build properties potentially being secured from housing developers for this purpose.

The aim is to reduce expensive external placements which are forecast to cost the local authority £14.4m this current financial year and save more than £1.9m over the next four years.

Mr Preston, whose independent-led administration was ousted by Labour last May, said he too had sought to create more homes for children and young people in the town, but there had been drift and it was “like no-one really cared”.

His successor as mayor, Chris Cooke said Mr Preston’s plans had been undeliverable.

A report for the executive confirmed “significant efforts” had been made over the past 12 months to find suitable properties within the council’s estate which could be refurbished after a children’s services financial improvement strategy was signed off last year under Mr Preston’s tenure.

But efforts were “hampered” because of refurbishment costs, which were declared as prohibitive and not representing value for money.

The council was also described as having to resolve a legal liability on one specific large property that had been earmarked to cater for young people post 16.

A re-worked strategy is now exploring new build opportunities with home builders selling available bed space to local authorities, and properties with minimal renovation work required.

Mr Preston said: “On my very first day as mayor I was given a brief financial overview by the chief executive and my first question was ‘If those costs are so high, why don’t we have our own children’s homes?’

“I was told that this was going to happen and the project was already underway.

“Over the coming years numerous requests to build children’s homes were made by both myself and the deputy mayor.

“Promises kept being made but nothing ever happened.”

The former mayor said the council had procrastinated and millions more had been wasted on children’s care costs.

He also said a comment made by a senior figure at the council during a meeting last year suggested the plans had simply “gone adrift”, which was “pretty shocking”.

Responding to the criticism, Mr Cooke said: “Andy Preston’s plan was undeliverable, he had four years to put people first.

“Instead of making homes he bought The Crown.”

The council currently has four children’s homes, a four-bed facility offering “edge of care” services and supported accommodation consisting of ten flats and nine supported lodgings for those with higher needs.

But because of demand these are either fully occupied, or close to capacity, meaning a reliance on external organisations.

Cllr Joan McTigue Image: Middlesbrough Council

Highlighting the cost difference, the executive report said on average council residential homes cost £3,300 a week to operate, whereas external residential placements were £5,600 a week.

Independent councillor Joan McTigue said past Labour administrations had closed children’s homes belonging to the council.

She said: “A large six-bedroomed children’s home in my ward was sold off for a mere £40k.

“How’s that for good financial management?”

A statement from the Middlesbrough Independent Councillors Association said: “Labour have announced they will save money by investing in more children’s homes in Middlesbrough.

Cllr David Coupe. Image: Middlesbrough Council 

“This is an excellent idea, which was approved in February 2023 by Andy Preston and his executive, and part of a financial improvement plan for children’s services required to stop Middlesbrough Council going bankrupt.”

Conservative group leader Councillor David Coupe, who was formerly part of Mr Preston’s administration, said: “We asked the council to create more care homes for children, but they did everything possible to not do it.

“We were told we can’t find suitable premises and it appeared to be excuse after excuse.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating and we will see if the current plan succeeds, I will be happy if it does.”

Figures show the council had 528 children and young people in its care in January, of which 97 were in residential care.

Cllr Zafar Uddin. Image: Middlesbrough Council

Councillor Zafar Uddin, executive member for children’s services, previously said having Middlesbrough children looked after closer to home, rather than sent outside the area, was extremely beneficial to their bringing.

He also said such arrangements were also more cost-effective “which is vitally important as we look to make the council’s financial position more sustainable”.

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