The transition of Birmingham social services from public sector domination to growing private and voluntary sector involvement was quickly identified as a priority when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took control of the city council five years ago.
Birmingham, unlike many other English cities, had simply not moved with the times. Its ancient council-run old people’s homes failed to meet modern standards and the financial cost of replacement simply could not be contemplated.
Ironically, Labour, now making political capital by opposing a decision to hand the meals on wheels service over to independent providers, wanted to do something similar to residential care for the elderly when it ran the council but could not find a way of overcoming huge opposition from trade unions and various pressure groups. The council is also mid-way through consultation on the future of its day care centres, and there are few people who seriously imagine Birmingham will have much in the way of public sector provision here by, say, 2015.
The catalyst for these changes is obvious enough – the cost of providing services for a rapidly increasing elderly population is likely to outpace any budget provision that might reasonably be made. Tens of millions of pounds of additional spending has been ploughed into social services since 2004, but it has not made much difference to the balance sheet with overspending for this year already forecast at more than £10 million.
Council leaders have attempted to muddy the waters a little by suggesting that the city’s meals on wheels and day centres are no longer required because more and more elderly people are deciding not to use these services, electing instead to opt for alternative independent and voluntary sector provision. The shift away from council-run services is indeed a fact – in Birmingham and across the country – but the extent to which this simply represents people voting with their feet as a result of years of under-investment by councils and a failure to embrace change is far from clear.
It is inevitable that Birmingham City Council is going to be providing less in the way of direct social services in future, relying instead on commissioning services through other means.
There is no obvious reason why this should automatically result in poorer and costlier provision for older citizens and people with disabilities, as Labour claim. But the onus must be on the council to make sure that the changes being planned usher in a far better range of social care than exists at the moment and that clients on lower incomes are not exploited by new providers.