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Ministers reject council’s 15-year safety valve plan

Ministers have rejected a council’s safety valve bailout proposal, claiming government could not “reasonably afford” it – but at the same time admitted the authority’s high needs deficit poses a “substantial risk” to its viability.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) had submitted a 15-year plan to get its £64 million high needs funding blackhole under control. 

Under the government’s safety valve scheme, councils with large SEND deficits get multi-million pound bailouts in exchange for agreeing to sweeping cuts to get spending under control.

Most of the other 34 deals, which now total £1 billion, are between five and seven years. 

But BCP had warned if they did it any quicker they may face breaching their legal duties to vulnerable children. The council is also among the first to open up the previously secretive safety valve negotiations process to public scrutiny.

In a letter, published today, DfE said BCP’s proposal “does not at present meet” the safety valve criteria. 

DfE said: “In particular, BCP’s proposal included an ask of the department significantly above the level which we could reasonably afford in comparison to other agreements. 

“Ministers have therefore decided that we cannot enter into an agreement with your LA at this time.”

But DfE acknowledge the deficit “as forecasted poses a substantial risk to your authority”.

It will “continue to work with” BCP and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities “with the aim of finding an appropriate solution”.

“We understand that this news will be disappointing, and as I have said we will be in touch shortly about next steps.”

‘Acted with integrity’

New safety valve agreements are usually published in March, so it’s not clear if BCP will have to wait another year before joining the programme.

Graham Farrant, BCP’s chief executive, said they “remain in discussion with the DfE as part of their safety valve programme”.

He added: “We always knew the council’s recent safety valve proposal challenged the DfE’s criteria and we have acted with integrity in making clear that we will not sign up to a deal that would see our services fall below the statutory requirements as set by government.” 

Schools Week previously revealed how BCP is facing legal action from parents over the controversial deal’s “shameful secrecy”.

Deals are normally agreed between officials behind closed doors. But BCP was rare in debating details of the deal in public at a council hearing.

Cllr Richard Burton, BCP’s children’s lead, said they have “been clear we would never sign up to an option that would jeopardise the education provision for any of our children”.

DfE said that safety valve agreements for 2023-24 have not yet been confirmed. It is in negotiations with five other councils.

A spokesperson added the programme does not “excuse or prevent local authorities from delivering on their statutory requirements to provide for children and young people with SEND. 

“The agreements, based on proposals put forward by each local authority, hold those authorities to account for doing so in the most effective and sustainable way, for the benefit of children and young people.”

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