Just months before switching roles to Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt delivered a speech where he made promises to “jump start” a debate on how social care should be funded. This task now lies in the hands of the new Health Minister Matt Hancock, along with the promised social care green paper. The paper has been repeatedly postponed, and it is now high time it was published so the recommendations can be reviewed and taken forward. A short interim report from the government in June flagged falling quality of care, over-reliance on local authorities, interdependent health and social care and a system not fit to respond to the demographic trends of the future.
When laying out his initial plans for the paper, Hunt pointed towards a need to resolve issues around Britain’s ageing population. Few would deny that social care in England is under huge financial pressure, and longer life expectancies are adding to the numbers requiring everything from small operations to round-the-clock care. Recent figures showed that NHS services are spending over £1bn a year buying care from outside the NHS because they are unable to keep up with demand. The spending is also going on hospitals buying places in care homes to get elderly patients off wards.
There are currently 9.9 million people in England over the age of 65, and this is forecast to rise by 20% over the next decade. This places pressure on the system at two critical points: the health service, but also the housing market as the number of family homes available fails to keep up with growing demand. Two in five UK homes are under-occupied and half of these are occupied by those aged 50 to 69. We desperately need to align these sectors with social care and recognise the significant difference this could make. Retirement villages, in providing care to people in their own homes as and when they need it, sit at the heart of the solution.
Last year’s Housing White Paper compelled the Secretary of State to issue guidance for local authorities on how they should address the housing needs of older people and this should be a core focus of the paper. Having care facilities that are designed to enrich someone’s life within the comfort of their own home is surely a better choice than reverting to a care-home only option. As proven by the International Longevity Centre UK, housing which facilitates living independently yet offers flexible care is associated with a lower uptake of inpatient hospital beds. Surely focusing on the cause rather than the symptom in this way is a better approach.
I look forward to seeing the published findings of the green paper and hope that, finally, we can work towards better integration of our services. High quality retirement housing across the whole market, from luxury to the under-served mid-market and right through to not-for-profit options, can have significant economic as well as social benefits.