A LOCAL authority undertaking measures to help strengthen families and keep children out of care has been urged to redouble its efforts amid concerns over the spiralling cost of providing key services for youngsters.

Darlington Borough Council’s children and young people scrutiny committee heard over the next three years, the cost of providing both children’s and adults services, such as social care, has been projected to increase by more than £6m.

The meeting was told the rapid rise in the cost of children’s services was being fuelled by high numbers of looked-after children and the high cost of supporting children with disabilities, putting pressures on both staffing levels and the adoption budget.

Other cost concerns relate to school transport, due to an increase in the number of children the local authority is required to transport to school.

Senior officers described the rising costs as “unsustainable” and said action was already being taken, with the help of a £1.2m grant from the Department for Education to assist in transforming social care in Darlington.

The meeting heard the programme, led by Leeds City Council, aims to improve outcomes for children, focus on prevention and reduce the number of children who need to come into care and ultimately reduce the budget pressure.

Councillors were told the authority had worked over the past 18 months to embed early intervention, creating a family group conference service, enabling issues to be identified before they escalate and for families to come up with their own solutions.

The council has already invested in increasing the number of placements for children with special educational needs at Rise Carr College and Red Hall Primary School, the meeting heard, to avoid the need and cost of children travelling to settings outside the borough.

Councillor Mike Renton said he was concerned the authority had become too comfortable with the assumption that the cost of providing children’s services had to increase every year.

He said: “I think there’s a lot of learning that we can do, certainly when budgets are stretched, in terms of trying to tackle problems as early as possible and identifying problems before they become problems to avoid children having to come into care.

“For too long we’ve been business as usual in Darlington and we feel that this path that we should always increase the cost is the norm and it shouldn’t be. Where will it end?

The committee’s chair, Councillor Cyndi Hughes, said it was clear investments needed to be made to save not just money, but “the heartache, pain and issues of families whose children go into care”.

She said finding the money to do so would prove difficult, adding: “We’re fighting against an economic downturn, Covid and ten years of austerity that means many families are struggling. A lot of the things that we are asking for to support families are not just things that the council can deliver. They are things that the community needs to deliver together.”