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David Heath on cuts to services for the elderly in Somerset

Tuesday 4 January 2011, 00:57
By David Heath

Copy from David Heath MP published in the Western Gazette on Thursday 16th December 2010

David Heath on Windmill HillA few weeks ago I suggested that it might be worth while Somerset County Council waiting at least until the government announced the annual local government settlement before setting off down the road of massive cuts in services. Although we all know that the economic situation is extraordinarily difficult and that means that belt-tightening is the order of the day in local government just as it is at national level, it was clear that the extra money already promised for adult social services was going to affect the figures.

Well, on Monday this week we had the announcements. And, although I'm not going to pretend it solves all the problems, it is undoubtedly the case that Somerset has been spared the worst under the settlement. Indeed, with a reduction of just 2% in spending power this year over last (a more accurate description of the situation than simply giving the revenue grant figures as it takes all available cash into account), Somerset has one of the best outcomes in the country, and certainly one which ought to mean that we do not see major cuts in front-line services. I'm sure our District councils would have been delighted with an equally benign result. Which leaves us with a conundrum. Because although Somerset has one of the best settlements in the country, it is planning cuts to its services that are as bad as any by a county council. Why would that be? Shouldn't they now be binning the plans they so prematurely prepared and go back to the drawing board?

Two areas of spending really concern me. One is precisely the area which has attracted additional government support. Somerset has been going backwards recently in the money it makes available for looking after elderly and vulnerable people. The fees they are prepared to pay residential home owners have been cut below what is viable, and the result is entirely predictable. Our residential homes are filling up, not with the Somerset elderly, but those from Dorset, whose county council are prepared to pay higher fees. As a result it is becoming increasingly difficult to find placements in homes near to family and friends, which simply adds to a sense of isolation, as well as being very unfair on relatives. Care homes can't be held to blame; they cannot be expected to run at a loss, and the pay of care-home assistants is already insultingly bad. It is hard to see that this is a sustainable long-term policy in a county with a rapidly increasing elderly population.

The second is in an area which we in Somerset pioneered many years ago. When I was a county councillor in Frome and Leader of the county council over twenty years ago, we went into partnership with the children's charity NCH to set up a new sort of children's centre, offering support and help for families and early intervention to help children who might otherwise have later problems. It was a success, and became a pattern for what is now a nationwide network of what are called "Sure Start" children's centres, including many in Somerset. The government is committed to the scheme, not least because by intervening early you can often avoid much more intractable, and expensive, difficulties later on. So it's particularly short-sighted if there were to be substantial reductions in a programme which does excellent work with young children, supports families and family structures, and reduces the need for remedial work as the child develops.

On Monday we saw the publication of the ambitious and in some ways transformatory "Localism Bill", which offers new ways for local authorities to operate and reduces the influence of central government on what they do. That's good news. But it does place additional duties on local authorities to do what is right for their local communities and to stop always blaming unidentified people in Whitehall for the priorities they need to take. People in Somerset will be watching decisions over the next few months with especially keen interest.

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