“Councillors from all political parties are reporting that they are at a tipping point in the provision of social care,” warned the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell after the Autumn Statement. A million people needing care, he said “are not getting it”.
At first glance, the government appears to be paying heed to the Opposition’s warning. The Prime Minister is understood to be considering plans to allow councils more flexibility to raise council tax to fund social care (the government has refused to comment on reports).
A seasonal gesture of goodwill? Not quite. If Theresa May goes ahead with the move, it will just be the latest time the government passes the buck on austerity.
Councils, not Whitehall, are the dispenser of many essential local services, from social care to libraries to recycling.
But while it’s the council that takes the flak, the bulk of its funding comes from central government. Between 2010 and 2015, the previous governments cut £18bn in real terms from local government services, according to FT analysis. In England, this is the equivalent of a fifth of spending.
The idea, apparently now being floated, that councils should be able to raise more cash through local taxes may on paper make sense – until you consider local demographics.
A metropolitan council home to a younger, healthier population, who pay taxes, will have far less trouble covering social care costs than a council in a post-industrial area with an aging population.
For example, in 2016-17, Islington’s council expects to spend £85,494,000 on housing and adult social care, but that’s nothing compared to the £332,663,000 planned by Lancashire for social care alone. And the more a council spends on social care, the less it has to invest in services that attract working-age people.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of trying to solve social care this way has already been attacked as a “postcode lottery”. May has pledged to create “a country that works for everyone.” A policy like this, which entrenches financial and demographic inequality, does the opposite.
A better long-term vision for social care would be to improve the connections with the NHS, where the sight of elderly patients stranded in hospital wards is already a common one.
As Ed Miliband’s shadow Health secretary, Andy Burnham was an early advocate of a more joined-up approach. Scotland, which has its own funding for local authorities and the NHS, is already moving in this direction. But such a reform means central government accepting accountability, and with the Treasury a-jitter about Brexit, such a dramatic shake up looks unlikely. Instead, the government may once again take the easy way out.