Dan Parton cutADASS’ annual survey of local authority social care funding painted a grim picture for the sector and, they say, without a significant injection of funding from central government, things will continue to worsen in the future. Editor Dan Parton analyses the report’s findings.

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) annual survey of all 151 directors of social services in England made for concerning reading, and the comments from various leaders in the sector in response to the survey only added to the sense of gloom about the future.

And it is easy to see why words like ‘bleak’ and ‘unsustainable’ kept cropping up in their quotes – there was very little good news to be found. 

For instance, one of the headline findings of ADASS’ survey was that the council tax precept – introduced in the now former Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement 2015 which gave councils the option to raise council tax by 2% for adult social care – will generate less than two thirds of the more than £600 million needed to cover the cost of the new National Living Wage this year. 

That means there is a gap of about £940 million to fill just to keep services operating at last year’s levels, for all of those people who need them, according to ADASS. This doesn’t take into account all those who may come to need social care in the next 12 months.

This was not a surprise. The precept, while welcome, could only ever have been viewed as a sticking plaster rather than a solution, and that view has been borne out. 

The ADASS survey also confirmed what most people working in – or receiving – social care already knew: money is tight and getting tighter, and this is affecting frontline services in some places. And, sadly, that’s only likely to get worse.

Indeed, ADASS’ statistics lay bare how parlous many local authorities’ finances are. For instance, 70 councils reported a fall in budgets and 62 needed to draw on reserves to fund budget shortfalls over the past year. But perhaps the most worrying figure is that 52 councils – just over a third – had to cut services to balance budgets.

In addition, at least 24% of the £941 million savings that adult social services directors will be expected to make this year will come from cutting services or reducing personal budgets. 

Given that austerity is here to stay until at least 2020, and with it the continuing cuts to local authority budgets, it is fair to assume that in the coming years a greater proportion of councils will have to cut services to make the figures add up. As Cllr Nick Forbes, senior vice chair at the Local Government Association, noted in his response to the ADASS survey: “There is little scope left for further efficiencies to be made.” 

But, as Forbes added – and again this is worrying – it is not just local authority-provided services that are feeling the pinch. “The growing demand of our ageing population, as well as increasing costs following the introduction of the National Living Wage, are squeezing care home and domiciliary care providers to the point of collapse,” he said. “A lack of funding is already leading to providers pulling out of the publicly-funded care market and shifting their attention towards people who are able to fully fund their own care.”

This, of course, puts more pressure back onto local authorities and charities who have to pick up the pieces. There is also talk in the sector of various private and third sector providers who are struggling financially.

In response to the survey, ADASS’ president, Harold Bodmer, along with Cllr Forbes and others, renewed calls for more funding from central government for social care, and the sort of protection for its budget that is afforded to the NHS.

It is a call that has been made every year for as long as you care to remember – as a journalist you are almost obliged to write ‘chronically underfunded’ before ‘social care’ – but the calls now have a greater sense of urgency. With few efficiencies left to find, it means that cuts will increasingly fall on frontline services, personal budgets and care packages for those with less severe needs. This has real human costs as people lose the services they rely on to live independently and their quality of life is reduced. It may also mean they end up requiring more intensive health or social care services, which could put greater strain on the system – so the intended savings from cutting their services ends up costing more down the line.

As we know from this government, if they really want to find extra funds for something, they can be found, but one suspects this call may fall on deaf ears. Even given the change of leadership – and chancellor – little will change in the short-term at least. Policies are in place and there are no plans for an emergency budget. It should be noted that despite new Prime Minister Theresa May’s talk about ‘fighting injustices’ in recent days, she has voted for austerity and benefit cuts consistently over recent years. 

Of course, another worry hanging over the sector is the UK’s recent vote to leave the EU and the uncertainty that brings with it. If the predictions of many economists of a post-Brexit recession come true, and the initial signs are that they could, then former chancellor George Osborne’s financial plans – already thought of as optimistic at best – go completely out of the window. In a recession there will be fewer taxes raised and, therefore, even less money for local authorities.

A recession would also have an impact on charity providers, who have been increasingly trying to fill the gaps in social care in recent years. Many haven’t recovered from the last recession in terms of donations from the public and another would further affect their ability to provide services.

So, when leaders in the sector talk of a bleak future for social care, it is hard to disagree. Whether we are heading towards a ‘tipping point’ is arguable – services have a habit of keeping on going even in the most adverse of circumstances, as the professionals involved have that level of dedication – but without an increase in funding for social care, more services are likely to be cut back or axed entirely, and personal budgets will be scaled back and eligibility criteria ramped up again.

What must not be forgotten is the human costs mentioned previously. Cuts are already having an adverse impact on older people and those with physical and/or learning disabilities or mental health issues and their families, and further cuts will only affect more people. 

If Theresa May really does want this country to work for everybody and not just the few, as she has said, then the issue of social care funding has to be addressed.