Coun Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle city council, says today’s white paper is a fudge and it’s time for local councils to take the initiative, radically. He and his city are leading the way
Imagine: it’s 2020 and the city council is in deep financial trouble. Our leisure centres, libraries and other ‘non essential’ services are closed down as we struggle to balance the books.
Effectively city councils like Newcastle and across the North are spending almost half their income on one thing, looking after the city’s adults whether they be older, vulnerable and frail. The number of people aged 65 and over is increasing fast – up by a third between 2012 and 2030 – while the costs of people with learning disabilities or complex needs living longer are also spiralling. There simply isn’t the money for the myriad of other services that councils like Newcastle provide every day.
This isn’t just a scare story; this scenario was put forward as a possibility by my colleagues at the Local Government Association at a recent conference.
But despite the Doomsday predictions, once again politicians in Westminster have chosen to do next to nothing. Today’s white paper on adult social care is predictably a fudge that rejects Andrew Dilnot’s arguments for public spending increases in order to guarantee that we look after our most vulnerable.
Instead of radical reform we are getting tweaking to a system that vulnerable people, their carers and families find unfair and confusing, and then a big delay while treasury mandarins figure out how to pay for it.
Dilnot wasn’t perfect but the basic principle is correct – we need to prioritise and invest. If we do this now we alleviate this crisis before it begins to affect everyone in our society and other council services start to suffer.
Not for the first time, Westminster indecision leaves Local Government in a bind and picking up the pieces. We’ve effectively been told that we’re on our own and will have to struggle with the unchanged mechanics of a system that is unfair, outdated and failing our most vulnerable people.
Added to which, an unfair funding formula on public health means that often councils elsewhere in England – who do not face the same deprivation-linked public health issues as Newcastle – receive more funding while we get less.
In Newcastle we are already trying to change our systems and ‘think different’ – for example we’ve recently revamped our care at home system to make it more local and more responsive – but we’re still stuck with the basic principle of doing more with less. You can see this in our ever tougher negotiations with the companies who run care homes across the city about prices, or when we tell older people that their day centre arrangements must change because a decision has been made by an independent management committee to close a building.
It’s easy to forget within the complex language of commissioning, adult social care and Dilnot that in the end our decisions come down to impact on people – people who have paid into the system all their lives and now face uncertainty as services change, reduce or close. These people are not just strangers, they are often our relatives and friends and colleagues, people who have so much to contribute to our civic life and our depth of knowledge about our past.
It’s a political cliché, but how we treat our vulnerable is a good measure of our health as a city and as a society.
We owe these people a duty of care and we have a responsibility to look at all the ways we can look after them better. In the absence of Westminster leadership, we need to come up with our own policies and ideas. No idea is too radical, no well-thought out solution that meets the needs of our most vulnerable is too unpalatable – we need to redesign our system from the ground up. The Government had the chance to do this nationally, but once again politicians of all colours have failed us – that’s why we need to lead.
That’s why we are setting up our own commission on adult social care. A gathering of some of the brightest minds who can help us come up with some new solutions. This isn’t a talking shop, I want recommendation to council within a few months and I expect many or their ideas to become the norm in our city.
And it’s not solely an academic affair, I want people from the ‘care industry’, I want the views of insurers and I want the voice of the most important people of all, the people who actually use our services.
I want the commission to examine our systems and put people at the heart of the decisions we make. I want them to recommend how we work smarter, how we can intervene earlier and how we can make a difference. I want some of these ideas to become the norm not just in Newcastle but in Nottingham, Southampton and Cardiff. In short, I want us to lead the challenge.
And we’ll continue to lobby the Government to do more – that’s why I have written to care services minister Paul Burstow to demand action, but there comes a point when you just have to make some of the running yourself. We’re daunted by the challenge, but doing nothing is not an option. This is one of my generation’s biggest civic challenges and I want us to be able to say that we did our bit to meet it.