SPECIAL REPORT: Council leader says Northamptonshire will not have Surrey-style 15 per cent council tax hike vote
A shock referendum posed by an affluent county in the south of England may well set off a chain reaction of referenda across the country as authorities seek to plug their ailing adult social care budgets. But Northamptonshire won't be following suit.
This week Conservative-controlled Surrey County Council sent a warning shot to health Secretary Jeremy Hunt - a Surrey MP himself - by announcing plans to raise their council tax precept by a whopping 15 per cent.
The move would require a “yes” vote in a referendum set to take place in May and would see the average Band D council tax payer’s bill rise by Â£200 a year.
Having already trimmed Â£450 million from its budget since 2010 as a result of Government cuts, the county’s leader David Hodge declared: “We have no choice but to propose this increase in council tax.”
But here in cash-strapped Northamptonshire County Council leader Heather Smith this week told the Chron, such a move would not work here - even though we are facing similar, if not worse pressures.
She said: “My simple answer is no (to a referendum).
“I have been asked by our chief executive what we would do.
“He (Paul Blantern) is aware as we are, that we need more money in the system.
“But I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.
“If you are asking the public, 90 per cent of whom fund their own care anyway, to pay a huge amount of council tax, I just don’t think it will be successful.
“But I believe it should be funded centrally.”
A Chron poll this week also revealed our readers would not be willing to pay an extra Â£200 a year to prop up social care.
Out of 340 votes, just 26 per cent said they would take on the 15 per cent tax rise being proposed in Surrey.
Councillor Smith even says she does not believe Surrey’s bid will be successful - as it could be intended as more of a warning shot to central Government.
But if a sweeping astronomical tax rise is off the cards, it begs the question: just how will the county council look after its elderly and disabled in the coming years?
In 2017/18 it will need to take Â£24 million out of adult social services alone, the department which looks after older people and those with severe disabilities, even as the county’s elderly population expands.
There are plans for an-up-to 300-bed dementia care village, possibly at the Wootton Hall site, to increase the provision of residential accommodation for the elderly, who do not need to go into full-time care.
The council is expanding technology too, cabinet member for adult social care, Councillor Bill Parker, says.
It is increasing its use of the “Canary” system, which monitors people in their homes without the need for a carer to be present.
The council says a move to bring adult social care back “in-house” under a new organisation NASS, will save it around Â£9 million by 2018 alone, partly because its current vehicle, Olympus Care Services, is subject to hefty taxation.
But even then both councillor Parker and Smith say the Government needs to inject funding into adult social care.
“I would still say that hand on heart, there is not enough money in the system,” said Councillor Smith.
“It will mean we cannot provide as good a service as we would in an ideal world.”
“Something has got to change and something has got to change nationally.
“A number of other authorities are also feeling the same pressure that we are.”
Recent figures suggest the council will need to make room for 2,452 social care requests over the next five years.
Meanwhile dwindling council funds are increasingly being blamed for causing a backlog in the NHS. In December chief executive of Northampton General Hospital Sonia Swart revealed there were 110 fit patients at NGH who could not be discharged.
Often this is because elderly people with complex illnesses need home care assessments by social services, which can take days and weeks.
NGH says the effects of this include long queues in A&E, ambulance response delays, cancelled operations and patients being moved wards in the middle of the night.
Recent board papers released by NGH show the bed blocking situation is being made worse as many patients say they simply cannot afford a private care home place.
Council-run care homes are in increasingly dwindling supply, after the authority closed Ecton Brook as part of cost-saving measures in 2016.
But this week the county council revealed plans, which it believes, will alleviate that.
Currently, it only pays private homes up to Â£455 a week to look after an individual, which many care home operators claim does not cover their costs by some margin.
But the council is launching a consultation on the Expected to Pay rate, in a bid to attract make more care home operators willing to offer beds.
As part of that it might consider raising the pay rate it offers to care homes, which is around Â£30 below the national average.
Councillor Parker said: “The pressures on the health and social care system have been widely reported, not least the severe demand on our local hospitals.This will allow us to bring more providers in to the local care home market.”