Social care Insights
From Simon Bottery

In trying to protect social care budgets against competing priorities, writes Simon Bottery, local authorities find themselves between a rock and a pothole.

Millions of people voted in last month’s local Government election and while turnout was, of course, lower than for a general election, it was still an impressive display of local democracy.

It was not, however, an election in which voters were particularly interested in adult social care.

The Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) with Ipsos Mori polled the public in April about the upcoming local elections and asked which features of their local area most needed improving. It found that social care came way down the list at 12th on a list of voters’ priorities.

The condition of roads and pavements was first, cited by half of those polled (the Ipsos Mori presentation of the results ends with the phrase ‘Potholes, potholes, potholes!’). This is followed by ‘affordable decent housing’ (39%), health services (37%), wages (36%), cleanliness of streets (36%), crime and anti-social behaviour, poverty and homelessness, public transport, facilities for teenagers and traffic congestion. Only then does social care get a look in (26% cite it). This is despite the fact that adult social care accounts for over 40% of a typical council’s spending.

You might choose to interpret these findings to mean that people think social care is pretty good and, therefore, isn’t a priority for action. But we know from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey, published recently by The King’s Fund and the Nuffield Trust, that this is not the case. Far from it. Only 15% of people said they were happy with adult social care and 50% said they were dissatisfied.

A more likely explanation for the LGIU findings is that people don’t see adult social care as a local issue.

We know that people are confused by who is responsible for care: when asked where they’d go to ask about social care, many people say they would first approach their GP rather than their local authority.

The low number also likely reflects the reality that social care is not top of mind for many people. Far fewer people draw on care than many of the other amenities and services on the list. There are around 45 million adult voters in England but only around one million use publicly funded adult social care services in a year – barely 2%.

That number rises when you also consider those who say they have contact with services – their friends, family, the social care workforce and perhaps those who ask for support but don’t get it.

In all, the BSA survey found that 14% of people had contact with social care services in the previous year. That’s a decent number but it still pales in comparison with the 80% of adults in England (35.9 million people) who hold a full driving licence. They manage to clock up around 275 billion road miles a year and you can bet they notice the condition of the roads. ‘Potholes, potholes, potholes!’

During the 2010s, local authorities in fact protected adult social care budgets and – with no other choices available – cut other services more. But with no sign that the tough financial climate for councils will improve, newly elected councillors will continue to face the tension between their voters’ local priorities and the need to preserve vital social care services. They are truly between a rock and a pothole.


Simon Bottery is a Senior Fellow in Social Care at The King’s Fund. Email: S.Bottery@kingsfund.org.uk Twitter: @blimeysimon

About Simon Bottery

Before joining The King’s Fund in 2017, Simon spent almost 10 years as Director of Policy at the older people’s charity Independent Age. He has wide experience in policy, communications and journalism, including as Director of Communications at Citizens Advice, in the commercial sector for Guinness and in BBC local radio.

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