Highland Council’s budget woes worsened yesterday as care and learning reported a huge increase in its projected overspend.
Already facing a funding shortfall of more than £30million for next year, this year’s projected overspend of just under £1million has now tripled to £3.1 million.
Described as an ‘in-year pressure’, that money that must be whittled from other services or found through savings to avoid drilling into the council’s diminished reserves or greatly reduced budget for the coming year.
The bulk of the overspend, more than £2million, comes from the council’s commitment to around 500 children in various forms of care, with the remainder coming from overspend on special schools, mainly in staffing.
Residential care placements cost around £220,000 per child, per year.
A report to go before councillors at the Care, Learning and Housing committee next Thursday says the increased use of independent fostering agencies has also contributed to the overspend.
For vice-chairwoman of Care, Learning and Housing committee, councillor Linda Munro, the overspend is a further red flag to improve council care for disadvantaged children.
Mrs Munro said that instigated by chief executive Donna Manson, a major new fostering and adoption campaign would shortly begin across Highland.
She said: “We know fostering or adoption is better for children than residential care, and that’s no reflection on residential care, staff out there are doing a fantastic job in hugely challenging circumstances.
“But we do know if you can’t be in your own home, a home setting is the next best thing.
“It’s not all about money, but we have to work smarter. The first stop is to recruit more foster carers.
“The emphasis we need is that everything must be done to keep children and families together where at all possible. We live in challenging times and they’re becoming more challenging by the day.
“There is also a need to support parents to become better parents and help to keep children at home.”
Budget leader Alister Mackinnon said he was confident of balancing this year’s budget through measures already in places such as recruitment controls, restrictions on travel and accommodation restrictions, staff overtime and non-essential spend.
A Highland Council spokesperson said: “The biggest factor in the overspend is placement costs for vulnerable looked after children and services to support families as laid out in the report. A longer term solution will be the redesign of services.”