Little is known about social care’s impact on the environment, but there are examples of sustainable good practice that councils could use to save money, reports Louise Hunt
Social care is lagging behind the NHS in cutting carbon emissions, according to a report last month. There is little national guidance from the government for social care on reducing emissions and fewer specific measures being taken to do so by providers or commissioners than in health, the International Longevity Centre and the British Society of Gerontology report revealed.
As a result, there is little information about social care’s impact on the environment. “In social care we found no one appears to keep figures on carbon footprint,” says report author Simon Evans, senior fellow at the University of the West of England institute for sustainability, health and environment.
This is in contrast to the NHS, where trusts have been encouraged to record and monitor emissions by the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, set up in 2009.
As Evans acknowledges, it is more difficult for councils to do the same in social care given the diverse market of providers from which they commission.
And making social care greener in the absence of clear government leadership appears an uphill task.
Councils’ and providers’ minds are focused on managing large cuts in spending and taking forward the personalisation agenda. Moreover, there are clear risks that both personalisation and cuts could make things worse for the environment; for instance, councils could commission multiple providers to increase choice for users, increasing emissions at the same time.
However, the current context provides opportunities as well as threats.
Last month’s report follows a study on existing good practice on sustainable development in social care last year by Evans and his university colleagues, published by the Social Care Institute for Excellence.
This was part of Scie’s Sustainable Social Care programme, a Department of Health-commissioned initiative to collate best practice in this area.
This includes incorporating sustainable outcomes in commissioning decisions, reducing travel miles incurred through delivering care, implementing telecare to cut the number of care visits and appointing green champions in each service.
There is good evidence that such schemes save money for councils as well as carbon emissions.
“Many of these examples go some way towards achieving environmental and economic sustainability, but dramatic cuts in public spending mean that we also need a fundamental rethink about how services are provided,” says Evans.
The Time Together time banking project is one example. Set up by Swansea Council’s social services department in the Gorseinon area to reduce waste, it also promotes local employment opportunities and encourages people to contribute to their community.
Local people, including care users, can join a network and accrue credits by taking part in activities and supporting each other; the credits can then be exchanged for leisure services. In parallel, an alliance of care and support providers has been launched to encourage service users to join the network and become active citizens.
“It enables a lot of people to come together, particularly older people, and increased social contact helps to create more social cohesion,” says Evans. “The authority does see it as a way to save money, but it does require some up-front investment.”
Personalisation could also support sustainability by putting purchasing power in the hands of environmentally conscious service users.
“Consumers could be real champions and insist on only using providers with a sustainability strategy,” Evans says. “Cornwall, for example, has a list of approved providers that are screened on having an environmental strategy.”
But, he warns, in the rush to roll out personalisation, there is a risk of increasing social care’s environmental impact, if multiple providers are chosen when previously there was one operating in an area.
The Scie programme is engaging directly with personal budget holders on how they can be best supported to think about environmental sustainability when choosing care packages. This work is being undertaken with Bristol Council and will inform national good practice guidelines.
Nick Smith, the council’s joint strategic needs assessment project manager, who is leading this project, says focus groups involving service users and providers will gauge what environmental sustainability means to them. “Ultimately this is to give people an informed choice and is about offering options that are environmentally sustainable,” he says.
As well as reducing emissions, social care also has a role in helping society adapt to climate change, given that its impact is expected to be most keenly felt by more vulnerable people. “The impacts of climate change tend to be felt more by the least privileged communities, where there is the least developed infrastructure, high density, poor quality housing and higher rates of poor health,” says Evans.
Whether more local authorities will see this time of change as a chance to re-think the environmental sustainability of social care services remains the big question
“It could go either way,” Evans says. “If local authorities take an innovative, long-term strategy they could make economic savings. But if the focus is on reducing spending we could end up with lots of providers offering cheaper, but not necessarily environmentally friendly services.”
Where sustainability fits with personalisation
Helping services users lead environmentally sustainable lives is all part of the day job for Bristol Council’s adult social care teams, thanks in part to Claire Craner-Buckley (pictured below right, with care home manager Pat Willis).
As environmental adviser for the authority’s health and social care directorate, she is implementing a range of environmental improvement strategies in the service.
“I try to make environmental sustainability relevant to staff in their work,” she says.
Under her guidance, staff routinely think of ways to assist service users in making greener lifestyle choices, such as through recycling and energy saving. In the authority’s own care homes, it has introduced gardening clubs to encourage residents to grow their own vegetables.
Service manager Gill Scott says the sustainability agenda fits well with personalisation.
“The generations coming into social care now are going to be more environmentally aware so it is about accepting people as individuals and helping them to take control and continue to be self-sufficient if they want to be,” she says.
Bristol’s approach has delivered cost savings and reductions in emissions, as measured by the eco-management and audit scheme, an EU-wide tool for measuring environmental performance.
By installing energy saving systems in social care buildings across the city, the service has saved £30,000 a year on electricity bills. And it has reduced by 20% the business miles driven by staff – equating to a £100,000 saving a year – mainly through better route planning, while some teams have pool cars and bikes with the ambition being to extend this to all.
The latest phase of Craner-Buckley’s work is to look at how social care commissioning can be more sustainable. “Bristol health and social care spends £150m a year on commissioning so there is huge potential to ensure services meet environmental sustainability standards,” she says. “We are just beginning to engage with providers on this now through workshops.”
Tips for going green
● Reducing staff miles by choosing the most efficient routes and avoiding unnecessary visits.
● Use energy-efficient pool cars or bikes.
● Telecare can help to reduce the need for multiple care visits.
● Adopt NHS models for taking environmental impact into account when commissioning services.
● Introduce green champions in your department.
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