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The announcement that Essex CC will use a large proportion of the money raised through its social care precept next year – a cool £7m out of an annual total of £17m – to experiment with digital solutions to the care crisis may have raised a few eyebrows.
In 2015, when the government announced it would allow councils to collect up to an extra 2% in council tax for social care without having to hold referendums, the move was panned as regressive, not to mention ineffectual.
The government’s move in December 2016, to allow councils to hike council tax by 3% per year for the next two years, rather than 2% for the next three, to pay for care was branded a further abdication of responsibility for the crisis.
Even though LGC’s research reveals the majority of councils will use the new precept, for lack of any other source of funding, the Local Government Association has said the government must inject £1bn of new money into the system immediately, just to stabilise it, before considering further measures to make care sustainable in the long term.
It must, then, be galling for those councils unable to make ends meet to see Essex using a large part of the precept as an opportunity to “experiment” with digitisation. That Essex can afford this, rather than having to use that £7m to plug immediate service gaps, suggests it is not suffering the same immediate pressures as other areas.
That said, cabinet member for digital innovation Stephen Canning (Con) knows that even if Essex is not firefighting on social care now, it will be in future as demand for traditional care services continues to grow across the country as predicted – and the only way to head that crisis off is to come up with a new model now.
Cllr Canning told LGC: “We’re not going to solve the adult social care crisis by raising more taxes or by cutting more money out of it. The only way we are going to do it is by finding a new way of delivering it.”
The exact solutions have yet to present themselves. Essex’s £7m will give it the space to innovate and experiment with various technologies. At the Smart Essex event the council held yesterday, bringing together other public and private sector organisations from the county to discuss digitisation, delegates discussed a range of apps, advanced telecare devices, big data analysis and improved connectivity between public agencies. The key, delegates said, was using this technology to further preventative work and help people remain independent, rather than using it as an excuse to cut them off from vital services and leave them at the mercy of a chatbot.
The sector has called for prevention and integration to improve services and make them more affordable, but when it comes to investing in the technology to make that happen, councils often find their hands tied by current service demand. Perhaps it is fair for the councils that can afford it to risk a tax-hike (and the opprobrium that may attract at the ballot box) to find out which technologies work best, leading the way for others.
This article has been updated. LGC originally reported that Essex CC’s social care precept would raise £5m in total and that this amount would be ringfenced for digital innovation, based on Cllr Canning’s statements. This has been corrected: the annual total raised by the precept is £17m and the amount ringfenced for technology is £7m. We apologise for the error.