Things will not get better: We need radical action on adult care and children’s services
This article originally appeared in The Municipal Journal.
“Given the longevity and the often fruitless talk about these crises, the time has come to accept that we now have a massive state crisis, which is grounded in inaction.”
Talk of our local public services being in crisis is now sadly an embedded part of our local government conversation. Exacerbated by nearly 10 years of austerity, the fact that rising social need is and will not be met by adequate provision is now the condition of many services including adult care and children’s. Given the longevity and the often fruitless talk about these crises, the time has come to accept that we now have a massive state crisis, which is grounded in inaction.
In adult care and children’s services we have a depressing and miserable state of affairs. £160m of total public spending has been cut from adult care in the last five years, despite rapidly increasing demand due to our ageing population. Indeed, 1.5 million people aged over 65 don’t receive the care and support they need with essential living activities. In children’s services, recent years have seen a 12% increase in spending on late intervention, fuelled by a 17% increase in the number of children in care since 2010. Yet spending on early intervention services for children – including Sure Start centres and youth clubs – has fallen by 49% since 2012. In a stark demonstration of the physical degradation of the public realm, more than 1,000 children’s centres and 600 youth clubs have closed since the onset of austerity.
“We are witnessing extremes of hardship and misery not seen for generations.”
These sorry “statistical stories” are reflected in the appalling real life stories of corners being cut and people falling through the cracks in the system. We are witnessing extremes of hardship and misery not seen for generations. There has been some response to this depressing new normal – not least a seemingly never-ending cycle of commissions and inquiries which have sought to record and describe the pain. To be fair, much of this work has been valuable, and some has indeed been met with legislative changes, or the promise of more resources – sometimes borne out in practice, sometimes merely warm words. Things are so bleak, however, and the social pain is now so entrenched, that we need to move from talking to action.
“We don’t need a new commission or half-hearted remedial action to tell us what is staring us in the face: our welfare state is broken. We must now accept that and act.”
If we do not seriously act, we have no hope whatsoever in building a decent society for us all. However, it won’t be easy – and here is the rub – because we have fallen so far that we now no longer see where we have fallen from. It wasn’t that long ago that politicians were telling us that things could only get better. Such optimism seems to now be in short supply. The notion that government is there to nurture and nourish, protect and provide, acting as the means to get us out of a social crisis has mostly dissipated. We now seem to accept the broken safety net for our children and older people on the basis that we no longer know what a decent service could look like, or truly believe that we can take the necessary action to rebuild it. A collective government understanding and will to believe that we can build excellent services with dignity and decency seems to have disappeared.
“National economic and political power has not stepped up to the plate.”
However, many continue to believe that strong intentional, root and branch action can happen. Older people themselves, families, frontline workers, service professionals, councillors, campaigners and some parliamentarians all call for radical reform. However, national economic and political power has not stepped up to the plate. Locked into an ideology based on limiting spending on social services and a belief in market solutions, the state is at best hesitant, at worst actively seeking to reduce its role. As a result, the state has presided over the growth of a system in which the balance between collective state action and individual/community responsibility has been skewed toward the latter, with disastrous results.
“The local government community needs to change the terms of the debate.”
In looking to what can be done, it is clear that a new spirit of action which challenges economic and political power must now begin. The local government community in particular needs to change the terms of the debate. Responses which “welcome” some small incremental legislative or limited funding change are wholly inadequate. This is sugar-coating the reality of a fraying state, perpetuating a belief we are on the right track which runs counter to the reality on-the-ground. Instead, the local government community – aligned with the above groups and other social movements – needs to be far more belligerent and make clear we are way off track, we are in an ongoing crisis, there is deep misery and things will not get better, unless there is huge change.
“it’s far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism”
It is not the style of local elected politicians or local officers to take this more activist and belligerent stance – years of centralism and top down control from Whitehall have created a straight jacketed pragmatism. At this juncture, however, there is no other option. As Dee Ward Hock once noted, “it’s far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism”. Instead, we need local activism: unless we get a new style and breed of local government activist, who is ready to take the fight on for the oldest and youngest who are suffering in our society, then sadly the misery will only get worse.