Dividing Lines: Getting old

The graph of doom.

In local government they call it “the graph of doom”. It is the chart with one steep downhill line showing budget resources and, soaring above it, another line showing the demand for services to look after an ageing population.

According to the latest census, one in six Britons is past retirement age. The number of pensioners will rise from roughly 12 million now to 16 million in 2050. The number of people aged over 100 (now around 12,000) will double over the next decade. As local authorities are responsible for adult social care, they won’t be doing anything else in the future unless the system changes.

What about the National Health Service?
It isn’t designed to provide long-term care for the elderly. Many people discover that only when they or their parents need urgent help. By some estimates, a third of all hospital beds are occupied by elderly patients. Long-term social care, arranged by councils, isn’t free for all. There’s a means test.

That’s the bit where I sell my house, right?
Under current rules, if you are worth more than £23,250 you pay. How much depends on the kind of care you need and where you live but the exposure is potentially unlimited. That often means cashing in equity.

Politicians should do something.
They are. The government is proposing a cap of £75,000 on the amount any one person would have to spend, starting in 2017. There will be a new, tapered means test starting at £123,000 – and so someone worth £50,000 still has to pay something, but less than someone worth £100,000. No one should pay a penny beyond the £75,000 cap.

Really?
No. In the small print, you are still liable for some “hotel costs” – the bed and board element of residential social care, the logic being that you’d still be paying for that sort of thing at home. But the state will now ease the burden for tens of thousands more pensioners.

If all these people are being let off the hook, where does the money come from?
The Treasury will need to find about £1bn extra per year. Some of this will be coming from additional employer National Insurance contributions. Most will be raised by freezing inheritance-tax thresholds, skimming more revenue over time from legacies of the dead.

Death taxes! Yuck!
Funny you should say that. It’s the very line that the Tories used in the 2010 general election campaign when attacking a Labour plan for universal social care, funded in part from inheritance taxes.

Oh, the irony.
That’s one word for it. That campaign poisoned relations between the Labour and Tory health teams, which made cross-party agreement impossible even though everyone agrees this is one of those big, long-term issues that demands collaboration. After the election, the coalition commissioned Andrew Dilnot, an eminent statistician, to come up with a plan. His report, published in July 2011, forms the basis of the coalition’s proposal. The government’s cap is a bit less generous than Dilnot recommended.

It took them 18 months to make that tweak?
It took them the best part of 18 months to summon up the courage to do much at all. There was a social care white paper last year that avoided the Dilnot route, which sounded a bit difficult and expensive to implement. Then the coalition parties realised that they needed some policy for the second half of the parliament. That became more urgent the clearer it got that fixing the national finances – formally declared Tough Issue Number One and the coalition’s stated raison d’être – wasn’t being tackled to anyone’s satisfaction. So Dilnot’s plan was fetched into Downing Street from the long grass.

And how’s that cross-party consensus coming along?
Labour has responded cautiously to the new coalition plan, with variations on the classic “too little, too late” holding rebuttal. Separately, Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has devised a grand plan to integrate social care with the NHS. The idea, under the rubric of “whole-person care”, is to find ways to maximise the value that society gets from the huge health budget with a more strategic focus on promoting healthy, happy living – supporting the elderly to stay in their homes, for example. That, in theory, works better and costs less than the present inefficient process, which intervenes too late and ends up throwing money at random at the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles and poorly managed chronic conditions.

What does that mean in practice?
There’s a review to work out the details.

What about the money?
The right kind of interventions at the right time save money in the long term, as health and social care spending would go much further if the system wasn’t forced into making so many costly last-minute emergency interventions. Hospitals wouldn’t be turned into vast geriatric warehouses.

Long-term savings appear only in the long term. You’d need money upfront to fix social care, even just to match what the government is doing.
Yes, you would. And when Labour finally decides what its spending priorities are, there is a strong chance this will turn out to be one of them.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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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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