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Ministers withold £18m from five ‘safety valve’ councils

Ministers have withheld £18 million from five councils with high needs funding blackholes, with their bailout agreements now officially “suspended”.

Cambridgeshire, Dorset, Hillingdon, Norfolk and Bath and North East Somerset’s safety valve agreements are “currently subject to review”, a Department for Education update today has stated.

Payments of grants to help plug SEND deficits have been “suspended, but will be made up if a revised agreement is reached”. 

In total, £17.7 million of £22.2 million has been withheld from these councils for the 2023-24 financial year. Both Dorset and Hillingdon received nothing.

It means £132 million in bailouts to help bring down budget deficits at the cash-strapped councils is now currently in limbo for 2024-25 and beyond.

Launched in 2021, safety valve bailouts come with strict strings attached meaning councils have to make sweeping SEND provision cuts.

The DfE has not said why the five bailouts have been put on hold. But this can happen “at any time”, including where “insufficient progress” is being made “towards the authority reaching and sustaining an in-year balance”.

Schools Week revealed earlier this year how Cambridgeshire and Norfolk were put under “enhanced” monitoring by ministers as their progress in cutting costs was deemed too slow.

Cllr Paul May, children’s lead at Bath and North East Somerset, said the change in funding has come “as a result of our forecast position not being correctly aligned with our plan following an increase in demand.

“We are working with the DfE on a revised plan and DfE has confirmed that once this has been agreed, the withheld payments will be back dated.”

Four new safety valve agreements

Meanwhile, two other councils – Bury and Kirklees – have had their agreements extended so they are now both nine years long.

Ministers have also agreed four new agreements – taking the total of safety valve deals up to 38. That includes a £95 million nine-year package for Devon. 

In return, it must improve “inclusive capacity” in mainstream schools and improve data use to “make informed decisions about how the council spends money” to support children with SEND. 

Wiltshire must “foster a culture of change” to improve “trust and co-production” as well as increase specialist capacity in return for £67 million over six years. 

Bristol council is set to receive £53 million over seven years, while Bracknell Forest must review its independent sector placements in return for £16 million. 

Cheshire East had been in negotiations, but it does not feature on the list of agreements. Schools Week has approached the council for more information.

Earlier this week, it was revealed ministers have rejected Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole’s 15-year safety valve plan to get its £64 million deficit under control.

DfE have been approached for comment on the next steps for the councils under review.

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