Counties in cry for help over funding shortfalls

Analyses of councils’ cuts to services suggest the burden of funding has shifted most markedly in county councils, reports Gordon Carson

The pressure on adults’ services budgets this year has been severe in many parts of England, but county councils look to be feeling the strain more than others.

In recent weeks Community Care has reported on cuts to services in, among others, Cornwall, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Northamptonshire.

And a report last week from the County Councils Network, a special interest group within the Local Government Association, paints a depressing national picture. It says counties are spending over 20 per cent more than government spending estimates and half report a reduction in funding from primary care trusts (see Why counties).

This adds to the findings of July’s LGA study in which counties were well represented, accounting for more than a third of responses.

It said two-fifths of social services departments in areas where the NHS was experiencing financial problems were dealing with more people who should have been receiving NHS funded care, such as those eligible for continuing care.

The government had moved to address this problem in June by producing a proposed national framework for continuing care, the consultation on which closed last week. However, while promising to increase the numbers eligible for fully-funded NHS care, campaigners fear it will not go nearly far enough.

Councillor Ken Thornber, chair of the network and leader of Hampshire Council, claims the NHS financial crisis means “illness is being redefined”.

He says: “Patients are often being discharged too early to the care of local authorities, with higher levels of dependency than we anticipated or planned for, often at the later stages of their lives.”

The result, says Thornber, is that Hampshire has been “overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people knocking on our door”.

However, the Department of Health is unlikely to provide any immediate relief. Although a spokesperson says the government appreciates that councils are under financial pressure, she points out that it will have increased councils’ social services funding by 39 per cent in real terms from 1997 to 2007-8.

It is also providing an extra £200m for older people’s projects over the next two years and £99m more for health and social care in local area agreements, she adds.

And she says there is “tangible evidence that much is being achieved”, and that next year’s comprehensive spending review will give the government the opportunity to “examine the changing health and social care needs of our population”.

Ray Jones, chair of the British Association of Social Workers and former director of adult and community services at Wiltshire Council, one of the hardest-hit authorities, says counties are suffering more than most as a result of NHS cuts and subsequent cost shunting.

He also points out that they incur extra travel costs and staff time because service users are spread out over large areas.

Jones says it is becoming “increasingly urgent” that the government addresses counties’ problems and calls on the government to immediately issue specific grants for adult social care.

“The winter is approaching and councils are taking drastic and dramatic action to claw back escalating overspends, leaving disabled and older people and their families stranded,” he adds.

However, Anne Williams, joint chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services resources committee, is not convinced that counties are worse off than other authorities. She says: “If you spoke to metropolitan and unitary authorities they
would say they are grappling with many of the same issues. They just don’t have the same profile.”

Counties say they are suffering more than other local authorities because they have experienced:

● Bigger reductions in Supporting People funding.
● Higher infrastructure costs for services such as direct payments.
● Cost shunting from NHS and higher contributions to pooled budget arrangements.

Additional reading
The tightening of eligibility criteria

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