Cllr Joel Charles is the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group on Harlow Council.
Our population is ageing and the impact is being felt across local communities. As a councillor in a district named Britain’s most rapidly ageing town, I see the implications daily. In 2017, the number of people aged 90 or over in Harlow had more than doubled in 15 years.
Recent history has shown us that attempts to change policies associated with support for older people can be fraught with complexity. Local and national government cannot neglect the needs of our ageing population for much longer.
My generation has a stake in this too. If we fail to deliver action now, building an economy and communities fit for our ageing society, the challenges will be far more difficult to overcome in the decades ahead of us.
At a national level, the Office for National Statistics projects that in 50 years’ time there will be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over. If we are to overcome related challenges and capitalise upon the opportunity that the longevity dividend provides, the government needs to deliver a credible difference through action. Consultation is only helpful up to a point.
Government action should be anchored by an approach that promotes the aspirations people have as they enter later life – ensuring retirement is a positive next phase with numerous opportunities. The much-anticipated Green Paper on adult social care is a prime opportunity to present options that meet increasing local demand for support in a fair way.
I recognise that the Government has a difficult tightrope to walk. There will need to be a frank conversation about how resources and capacity can be deployed to ensure that a postcode lottery in provision is not, inadvertently, exaggerated. I was surprised that the Government took the decision not to publish the Green Paper in tandem with the NHS Long-Term Plan – both need to complement one another if progress is to be made. At best, it makes the Government look hesitant about such a pressing issue.
I hope that my analysis is wrong, and the Department of Health and Social Care has taken the time to put together a robust Green Paper. What shocked me recently was a study published by the Lancet Public Health Journal that predicted the number of people aged 85 and over needing 24-hour care is set to double by 2035. The delay in publishing the Green Paper has raised anxiety levels across the health and care sector, as well as for families and those in need of care themselves. It is important for the Government to pick up the pace, set out its options, and launch an open consultation in earnest so that action can be taken sooner rather than later.
The Government must face the reality that if it fails to act and does not publish the Green Paper soon, it will miss a prime opportunity to ensure future generations of older people receive the care and support they deserve and can afford. I am concerned that the Green Paper will be a non-event – it should kick start action, not delay it further.
Local communities are feeling the strain and are looking to the Government for action that will benefit generations of older people in or about to enter retirement. Here are some of the critical challenges that illustrate the task ahead:
Increase in multiple comorbidities
There are a growing number of people developing multiple long-term conditions or chronic diseases for which there is currently no cure. The best way to reduce the rise in multiple conditions is a well-funded national prevention plan. It is good news that Matt Hancock has made prevention a priority, but he must go further than what he has said to date. The forthcoming Prevention Green Paper should include both national and local efforts, particularly in deprived areas, to reduce the number of people developing such conditions.
Loneliness and social isolation in later life
We know that both loneliness and social isolation are bad for your physical and mental health. Age UK say that Loneliness can be as harmful for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is a human tragedy, particularly for people in later life.
The Government launched its first Loneliness Strategy late last year. I believe the strategy needs to go further than focusing on initiatives like social prescribing and developing relationship education classes at primary and secondary school level that look at the impact of loneliness. We need to focus on promoting independent healthy lives in later life.
Local planning must also be considered in this debate because the built environment can contribute to loneliness if older people live in isolated communities. This means the National Planning Framework will need to give consideration to designing urban and rural communities that meet the needs of older people so that they can remain connected to society.
The current funding model for adult social care is broken. Although the Treasury gave local authorities additional powers through the Council Tax precept to raise funds for social care, more needs to be done. The Treasury and local authorities continue to lock horns over different mechanisms for raising new funds to render adult social care services sustainable. The commentary relating to those mechanisms has so far neglected to outline their differential impact on local areas.
There are no easy answers when deciding the fairest way to fund adult social care. Again, the Government will need to have a frank and honest conversation with the public about the costs and how the public purse can support care in the future. Hard choices will need to be made, but the Government should look to engage older people in a far more meaningful way than it has in the past to design provision in a user led way.
Tangible action can only happen when the government embraces the true reality of ageing. We need social, political and economic change at all levels to adapt and prepare for future demand. This also means the better use of existing resources and the adoption of new technologies to help people remain active and healthy for longer. That way, we can make better progress on the challenges I have identified, and we can go forward better able to anticipate the needs of our ageing population.
Our Party can start to grasp the opportunity by placing a greater emphasis on championing independence in later life. The problem is that we are steadily approaching a cliff-edge. The National Audit Office has found that over a million people over the age of 65 are faced with unmet care needs because formal care is failing to meet the increase in demand. This highlights the task at hand, but we need a fundamental rethink that breaks away from the outdated view of adult social care before we can avoid the breaking point in provision.