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In an age of disillusionment with big government, ministers should finally heed the call

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Commentary on the Conservative party conference.

Visitors to the Conservative conference in Birmingham this week could not fail to notice that significant parts of the centre city are still building sites or derelict brownfield.

The complex network of blocked walkways, diversions and empty demolition sites cordoned off with tatty temporary barriers is a fitting location for the gathering of a government still struggling to construct any semblance of cohesion and – weakened by internal fracture, belligerent egos and an unworkable majority – unable to fill the policy void with any meaningful, resilient structures.

The fragmented central Brum landscape was also an appropriate setting for the conference’s most significant announcement for local government.

The £240m pledged by health secretary Matt Hancock this afternoon for social care to deal with winter pressures is not so much a sticking plaster, but a frayed sheet of old tarpaulin covering a gaping and deepening hole.

As local government representatives have said, any extra funding is welcome of course but it reflects a government reacting on the fly with brazen short-termism, unable to think and act beyond the near future, hamstrung by a lack of vision and courage, at the mercy of insecurity and a fanatically frugal Treasury which cares more about debt reduction than building for the future.

LGC reported last week a growing expectation among senior local government figures that some extra funding for adult social care was on its way.

The government has again been forced to act on a politically sensitive issue: but the view is that it is the NHS that must be protected at all costs, not social care. Mr Hancock appeared to admit this in his speech, stating the £240m was ”to pay for social care packages this winter to support our NHS”.

The overall ethos has been to direct any funding available to the NHS, even it means the wider services that prevent pressure on A&E departments and, more importantly, help to keep most people happy and secure with a sense of community and purpose, continue to be compromised.

Glen Garrod, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, reacted to the extra cash by calling for the government to “go much further, much faster”.

It is only with a full commitment from government that a social care system that is truly fit for purpose can be established, rather than struggling on with a fragile system largely focused on moving elderly people out of hospital. It must also be equipped to provide fully-formed and thorough support once they do so and be able to support all adults who need help to lead the best lives possible – whether an individual has acute needs or could just do with a helping hand in challenging times.

Former life science minister George Freeman MP offered a particularly thought-provoking appraisal of the situation our society finds itself in at a fringe meeting on Monday.

He argued that Brexit underpins a “tectonic transformation of political economy” which has happened periodically throughout history when “prevailing order breaks down and a new order emerges”.

Mr Freeman said: “People are looking for alternative structures in an age of deep disillusionment with big government and a yearning to belong to a place and a yearning for a politics that put people and place first.”

His compelling argument was that modern public services cannot be run on a Whitehall model of “siloed command and control”.

Mr Freeman added: “We give a lot of money to doctors and some money to social care and everyone is told to deliver more for less and if you do, we take money off you and give it to those doing less. It is no wonder the system is bust.”

While the government continues to struggle – internally and externally – with Brexit, it is communities, many of which called out the establishment by voting to leave the European Union, that continue to face diminishing public services, social infrastructure and support.

Perhaps there is an irony that Brexit poster boy and Tory disruptor-in-chief Boris Johnson has today called for councils to be given more control through greater fiscal devolution.

He appears to have caught wind of the major ask from local government at conference: “trust us”.

Whatever happens with Brexit negotiations or the leadership of the Conservative party, if the country is to start to build vital resilience ahead of an uncertain future, surely now the time has come for government to finally heed the call.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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