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Andrew Cozens: Billion-pound care deals reveal a threatened sector

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Shock news: there is new money flowing around the care sector.

The trouble is little of it will affect the direct experience of those either waiting for care or seeing their support reduced.

A casual glance at the recent business pages shows the sums moving in and out of the sector through the buying and selling of some if its biggest players. There are also accounts of councils rallying to reassign home care contracts from the failing Allied Healthcare.

Five big companies have completed change of ownership or are on the market. In June Signature Senior Lifestyle, a luxury care home developer and operator, moved into Canadian ownership.

Learning disabilities firm Care Management Group has been sold to a global investment manager for a report £200m. It was rescued in 2008 by healthcare management firm HC-One’s owner, Court Cavendish.

HC-One itself is up for sale for an estimated £1bn and is apparently attracting interest from US and Asian investors looking to increase their stake in the UK market.

In further developments, Barchester Healthcare, owner of more than 200 homes caring for over 11,000 older people, is on the market with a suggested price from its Irish owners of £2.5bn.

Lastly the troubled Four Seasons Health Care is now likely to be put up for sale in January. Having survived a major financial restructuring agreed with its main creditor, the sale is seen as securing its long-term future.

Alongside this activity, property analysts Knight Frank warn that the lack of new developments in the pipeline is a threat to the sector’s viability and to investor interest. They suggest there is a refurbishment backlog of £15bn, and 6,500 care homes with 140,000 beds may close in the next five years.

The scale of these changes and the volatility of public funding show that the current business models are under threat even for the biggest players. Home care has proved the first domino to tumble.

At the small beer end of announcements, £240m winter pressures funding was announced in the budget for the rest of this financial year, recurring in 2019-20. Its conditions make explicit that it is to help prop up the NHS this winter, that it must be agreed by NHS commissioners and providers, and that it is wholly for new activity that frees up beds.

The next year will dawn with no clear direction of travel for social care. The promised green paper is in the longest grass and at risk of being shredded by the Brexit mowers. At the same time billions of pounds are flowing in and out of the sector and all but the poorest are expected to raid their own funds for the care they need.

 Andrew Cozens, independent social care and health specialist

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