Council budgets buckling under soaring costs for children’s social care, warn leading charities

  • £4 in every £5 of additional spending went on late intervention services in 2021-22
  • Spiralling number of children in residential care is driving a rise in late intervention spending

Local authorities across England increased their spending on children’s services by £800 million for 2021-22, a substantial 8% surge from the previous year. However, major children’s charities are raising alarms: despite this spending surge, early intervention services are in decline, witnessing a startling 46% drop in the last 12 years.

This new analysis, conducted by Pro Bono Economics and commissioned by leading children's charities, Action for Children, Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, National Children’s Bureau and NSPCC, unveils a concerning trend: 81% of the recent increase was funnelled into crisis intervention services, a rise from the 67% seen a decade ago.  Of this additional spending £4 in every £5 went on late intervention services.


The implications are clear: children are receiving help after issues escalate, rather than preventing them. With the rising expenses in late-stage interventions, primarily in the realm of children’s social care, the crucial early steps that could avert crises are being sidelined.

Mark Russell, CEO of The Children’s Society, said:

“The time is now for an urgent shift in children’s services. We're firefighting a growing crisis in children’s social care that’s not only costlier but often misses delivering the best for children and their families.

"This isn’t just about funding; it’s also about timely, effective care.  Our children deserve proactive support, not just emergency responses when situations worsen.”

Paul Carberry, CEO at Action for Children, said:

“This research shows once again how central government spending cuts are trapping cash-strapped councils in a "doom loop”, as their costs of children in care spiral and prevention services have to be slashed.

“For years now, successive governments have forced councils to run children’s services like A&E units, where only those at serious risk of harm get help. Waiting for children to be exposed to harm hurts children and families, and burns a massive hole in council finances. This is simply unsustainable.

“We need to rebalance children’s services so councils have the capacity to intervene earlier, support parents, protect children and keeps costs down.”

Anna Feuchtwang, CEO at the National Children’s Bureau, said:

"There has been a long-term shift in the way we help vulnerable children and families, increasingly only offering support in emergency situations. We must greatly expand help that prevents families from reaching crisis point in the first place. This will not only prevent harm to children but protect local authority budgets from the soaring costs of taking a child into care. The financial and moral case is overwhelming. The government must make children’s social care a priority and the voices of children, families and communities who rely on early intervention services must be at the heart of future reforms." 

The core of this issue stems from central government funding cuts. Local authorities, under financial duress, are dialling back on early preventative services, which are instrumental in halting crises before they amplify. This shift is clear, with a staggering 79% increase in children entering residential care since 2010-11.

Sir Peter Wanless, CEO at the NSPCC, said:

“These worrying figures show children’s services are at breaking point across England. The financial strain on local authorities caused by crisis support for families at ever increasing levels is unsustainable, but there is still time to rectify and rebalance the system.

“To improve the outcomes for families and combat these spiralling costs, we need immediate investment in a preventative, joined-up system which prioritises family help and supports children before problems escalate.

“This will take political leadership and cross-party support on a wholesale reform of children’s social care delivered as a matter of urgency.”

Lynn Perry MBE, CEO at Barnardo’s, said 

“We know that failure to provide the right support at the right time has a lifetime cost for children. Nearly half of those in care have a mental health disorder and four in 10 young people leaving care are not in education, employment or training by the time they reach 19.  

“Failing to invest in local hubs and youth work which help families early means children miss out on the support they need and challenges can escalate – especially with the added pressure of the cost-of-living crisis. As the report shows, a growing number of children are reaching a stage where they need to live with foster families and especially in residential care – including a growing number of teenagers with complex needs.   

“These new findings should be a wake-up call to the Government, highlighting the urgent need to break this vicious cycle, which creates huge costs for the Treasury and for children’s futures. We need significant investment in services that stop families reaching crisis point, which would not only reduce the financial cost to the state, but would allow more children to continue living with their birth families safely and improve their long-term life chances.” 

Central government funding is vital to curtail the reliance on high-cost late interventions and ensure a proactive, cost-effective approach to children's services.  To restore balance, there must be a higher priority placed on early interventions that not only save costs but more importantly, make a difference in young lives.

Melanie, a practitioner with The Children’s Society, has witnessed cuts and the impact on youth services:

“The youth service is now nearly all gone. Where young people used to go to lots of youth centres and clubs and get all of their energy out with their friends, that’s now not happening. With youth centres closed, they’ve got less places to go where they can feel safe and be engaged in positive activities. Home Start, the youth service, family support sessions, everything has gone.”

The charities are warning local authorities are being forced to tread well-worn paths into late intervention spending as they grapple with difficult spending budgets.

The speed of reform from central government must be faster and the investment larger, including faster implementation of the  Care Review Recommendations.  As costs continue to spiral with Government delays to reform, children’s social care is expected to cost an extra £1 billion over the next 10 years**.

Notes, further information and comment

There are spokespeople available. For interview requests please contact Jonathan at The Children’s Society on 07708 394 609 or [email protected]

Quotes from Pro Bono Economics and Local Councillors

Matt Whittaker, CEO of Pro Bono Economics, said:

“Our latest analysis shows the false economy in children’s services continues to burden local authorities with increasing costs, while failing to give children and young people the best possible chances in life.

“By cutting back on early intervention services, such as Sure Start children’s centres, in the face of financial pressures, councils are having to spend more when young people are closer to crisis point.

“Last year’s Independent Review of Children’s Social Care rightly called for a ‘radical reset’ to shift provision away from crisis management and towards preventative support. This is needed more than ever.”

Cllr Alex Winning, Labour Councillor for Shirley, Southampton, and Cabinet Member for Childrens Services and Learning, said:

“Over the past 13 years, Government investment to enable Councils to provide early intervention has been slashed by more than 50%.  This is truly shocking and is an issue that’s simply not being addressed or tackled by the current Government. Year after year, Council’s like us here in Southampton, are having to spend more and more on high cost placements and services when in reality, greater investment in early intervention could have prevented this and lead to better, more positive outcomes for young people.

“I firmly believe that the more you are able to invest in early intervention, the less you will spend overall on late intervention.  The current system needs a radical reform from top to bottom and not just ‘patching up’ as I believe the Government have been doing.”

Cllr Cheryl Barnard, Labour Councillor for Bulwell Forest, and Portfolio Holder for Children, Young People and Education, Nottingham City Council, said:

“Cuts to local government have had a devastating effect on children’s services.   At a time when the effects of the pandemic on children and young people has escalated pressure on our statutory services we have had to make significant cuts to our early help and preventative services.  In Nottingham we have had to close a number of our children’s centres, make all our play workers redundant and reduce our in-house youth service. 

“Early help and preventative services ensure that vulnerable children, young people and families are provided with services and support at the earliest opportunity.  Recognition of the value of early help and preventative services is needed alongside a commitment to fair funding for social care.”

Key findings from the report

The full report by Pro Bono Economics can be accessed here.

  • In 2021-2022 there has been a £800mn increase on children’s services funding in England (unprecedented 8% rise on previous year).
  • Children’s services spending absorbed 25% of all local government spending power, up from 18% in 2010-11.
  • £4 in every £5 of additional spending going on late intervention services in 2021-22.
  • Increase in residential care is biggest driver of late intervention spending*.
  • Since 2010-11, care services expenditure has increased by £2.2bn (61% increase).
  • In 2021-22, there was additional care services expenditure of £500m (22% of the 61% increase occurred in 2021-22 alone).

*Residential care:
Since 2010-11, number of children in residential care has increased 79%.
Since 2010-11, spending on residential care has increased 63%.
90% of this additional spend has gone to the private sector.
Local government spending on for-profit provision has more than doubled since 2010/11.

**Alma Economics was commissioned to produce an analysis of the social and financial impact of delaying reform to the children’s social care system, compared to rolling out reforms on the timeline initially recommended by the Care Review. 

About the data

  • Figures for children’s services spending are derived from the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) LA and school expenditure dataset, which is constructed from data supplied by local authorities in their S251 returns provided to the DfE. All spending figures are real terms, reflecting 2021-22 prices
  • For this analysis we define early intervention spending as the sum total of local authority spending on Sure Start children’s centres, family support services and services for young people. We define late intervention spending as the sum total of local authority spending on youth justice, safeguarding and child protection, and looked-after children.
  • Data relating to the changing number of children in residential care is derived from the DfE’s Children looked after in England including adoptions dataset. This is constructed using the children looked after return (also known as SSDA903) collected from all local authorities by the DfE. This return counts the number of children in various types of care placement on the final day of each financial year (31 March)

The Children’s Services Funding Alliance

The Children’s Services Funding Alliance comprises of Action for Children, Barnardo’s, National Children’s Bureau, NSPCC and The Children’s Society. Together, these five children’s charities work to ensure that ambitious and sustainable long-term investment is made in local authority children’s services and support for vulnerable children and young people across England to improve their lives and those of future generations.

About Pro Bono Economics

PBE uses economics to support the social sector and to increase wellbeing across the UK. It combines project work for individual not-for-profits and social enterprises with policy research that can drive systemic change.

For further information, please contact: PBE Press Office at [email protected] or on 020 4582 9597. Follow Pro Bono Economics on Twitter at @ProBonoEcon and Matt Whittaker at @MattWhittakerPB.

About The Children’s Society

The Children's Society fights for the hope and happiness of young people when it's threatened by abuse, exploitation and neglect. We see the hope and courage in young people every day, and it inspires us to support them through their most serious life challenges.

For more information, please contact The Children’s Society’s media team on 0207 8414422 or [email protected]. For out-of-hours enquiries please call 0207 8414407.

About The National Children’s Bureau

For 60 years, the National Children’s Bureau has worked to champion the rights of children and young people in the UK. We interrogate policy and uncover evidence to shape future legislation and develop more effective ways of supporting children and families. As a leading children’s charity, we take the voices of children to the heart of Government, bringing people and organisations together to drive change in society and deliver a better childhood for the UK. We are united for a better childhood. 

For more information visit  

About the NSPCC

The NSPCC is the leading children’s charity fighting to end child abuse in the UK and Channel Islands. Using voluntary donations, which make up around 90 per cent of our funding, we help children who’ve been abused to rebuild their lives, we protect children at risk, and we find the best ways of preventing child abuse from ever happening. So when a child needs a helping hand, we’ll be there. When parents are finding it tough, we’ll help. When laws need to change, or governments need to do more, we won’t give up until things improve. 

Our Childline service provides a safe, confidential place for children with no one else to turn to, whatever their worry, whenever they need help. Children can contact Childline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

Our free NSPCC helpline is open every day of the year for any adult worried about a child. Our practitioners provide advice and support, listen to concerns about a child, and offer general information about child protection. 

For more information visit:

About Action for Children

Action for Children protects and supports vulnerable children and young people by providing practical and emotional care and support, ensuring their voices are heard and campaigning to bring lasting improvements to their lives. With 447 services across the UK, in schools and online, in 2021/22 we helped 671,275 children, young people and families. 

About Barnardo’s  

Last year Barnardo’s provided essential support to over 357,000 children, young people, parents and carers through more than 790 services and partnerships across the UK.   

We provide vital support to the children and families who need us most, to help with a range of issues including mental health, child sexual abuse and children in care.   

We listen to children and young people and work to bring about positive change so that they can have a brighter future.   

Visit to find out more.   

Call the 24-hour press office number on 020 8498 7555.   


Registered charity No. 216250 and SC037605.   

Follow Barnardo’s media team on Twitter @BarnardosNews