The Rotherham scandal shows council officers' failure to combat child abuse. Photo: Getty
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Local government and Ofsted must do more to tackle child abuse

Child abuse is a cancer in our society and one that we can no longer treat with light touch regulation.

For over a decade now local government scrutiny committees have been quietly going about their business of reviewing council policy. Much too quietly it would appear, as on plenty of occasions they should have been screaming blue murder.

Established by the Local Government Act 2000, scrutiny committees perform a vital service – yet it’s time we faced up to the fact that in too many cases they’re just not doing their job.

That was clearly evident in Rotherham where child protection failings went unnoticed – and yesterday’s report by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, of which I’m a member, is a reminder of the untold damage that results from poor scrutiny.

When we interviewed senior Rotherham Council officers earlier this year it was obvious that they had not been subject to the kind of scrutiny necessary to raise the alarm on chronic child protection failings that saw at least 1,400 children subject to appalling sexual exploitation over a 16-year period.

In my own constituency of Rochdale the same failure to properly scrutinize child protection services was evident when a major grooming scandal exploded in 2012. When council officers sat before MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee shortly afterwards their failure to understand the severity of the problem was painfully obvious.

In both cases it was clear that parliament did a far better job of holding council officers to account than their own scrutiny committees. So why is this? In my constituency I was told that senior officers often declined to attend and sent junior officers in their place. Councillors were reliant on officers to tell them about the policy areas they were supposed to be holding them to account on. And questioning was far from robust. It was more of a tick box exercise.

The same timid approach to child abuse and failure to properly hold child protection agencies to account has been demonstrated by Ofsted. The regulator has a poor record in this area, failing to identify serious child protection failings across the country.

Recent plans drawn up by Ofsted to add child abuse inspections to a handful of councils in areas where there have been child sexual abuse convictions is simply a case of trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.

If we’re really going to tackle this problem is it good enough that only a handful of authorities are subject to a thematic review inspection on how they deal with child abuse? The idea that inspectors should only try and find out where failings occurred after a major scandal breaks is risible. Ofsted should be conducting this kind of specialist inspection everywhere to make sure children are being protected.

But arguably the real reason why scrutiny remains poor where child protection services and child sexual abuse is concerned is because politicians have yet to wake up to the huge social cost that it creates.

Child abuse is not just a horrible headline or a distasteful tale that we can turn away from and ignore, knowing it will not impact on our lives. I’ve seen how child abuse impacts on wider society in terms of the myriad problems it creates. It’s extremely far reaching. And I’ve seen how it impacts on public services.

Whether it’s through pressure on mental health and other NHS services, the prisons service, police, social services and other agencies besides, child abuse not only destroys lives but costs the public purse too. When child abuse is committed on a large scale it leaves behind a trail of chaos. It puts huge pressure on services and strips people of their dignity and sometimes pushes them to the margins of society.  It is a cancer in our society and one that we can no longer treat with light touch regulation. Protective services and regulators need to do far more to stop it spreading.

Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale and his book, Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith, came out earlier this year, published by Biteback Publishing

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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