Andrew Jepp 06 May 2014

The risk of ignoring the social care challenge

The recent IPPR report, The Generation Strain, highlights the serious and growing challenge of social care provision for the elderly.

In addition to the familiar concerns of an ageing population and budget reductions, the findings highlight how the number of older people in need of care will soon outstrip the number of adult children able to provide it, putting stress on services and leading to a potential crisis of social care funding.

The report recommends that the care gap be supported by 'new community institutions'. Creating local care coordinators with responsibility for elderly care, investing public health budgets into community groups, and housing local services under one roof to reduce generational divides have all been suggested as necessary measures and would have direct consequences for local authorities.

However, while elderly care is a complex issue that has no easy answers, local authorities are well placed to address these recommendations. The IPPR report asserts that the provision of elderly social care will require greater emphasis on partnerships with families and communities rather than the traditional supply chains of service delivery, and councils have already gone a long way to develop such models of service provision.

As budgets have been squeezed following the financial crisis, local authorities have shifted their role from pure service ‘providers’ to service ‘enablers’. They have developed models which empower communities to deliver the services most relevant to them and councils should be able to draw on this experience to strengthen community networks which can offer elderly support and help prevent care needs from arising.

Leeds Neighbourhood Networks are a good example of how community based initiatives for older people can help reduce isolation. The scheme relies on voluntary organisations to provide care and activities, which relieve pressure on the NHS and protect local social services. While they do not stop everyone needing professional care, they provide a valuable complement to specialist services and promote general wellbeing for elderly residents who can live a more full and independent life.

Nonetheless, overseeing the transition of social care to new community institutions brings challenges in itself. It is important to understand the risk of empowering less experienced workers and volunteers, where failure of care could impact residents and affect local confidence. In particular, a community-based delivery model can create complex and unique networks, meaning the local authority must don the role of “community risk steward”, regularly re-evaluating the tolerance of local people and stepping in where needed to ensure required standards.

If the public sector is to thrive through a tough spending settlement and policy environment, it is important that local authorities can focus on creating the right conditions for success and growth. The recommendations of the IPPR report may pose some difficult challenges for authorities, but – as long as any transition is carefully managed – this could be an opportunity for communities to take greater responsibility for their own and their neighbours’ wellbeing, allowing council resources to focus on long-term or specialist needs.

While careful risk management is required in relinquishing some control of services now, failing to adapt to the growing care challenge could create larger risks for the future.

Andrew Jepp is director of public sector at Zurich Municipal

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