Looking back at 2022

…and forward to 2023

Well, it’s that time of year again. The turning seasons, this year amplified by a cold snap, and in our case the need to write a social impact report inevitably conspire to create a reflective mood. How have things moved forward over the past year, and what will the next cycle bring?

Frozen Sticky Burs Near Weyland’s Smithy

When looking back at the national picture, there’s been so much change it’s hard to find a stable point from which to look back. Coming into the year we had a Johnson government with at least another couple of years on the clock, an outstanding commitment to ‘fix’ social care, and a small war-chest with which to do it. Two Prime Ministers later the money is no longer there, and even progressive voices within social care do not think a ‘cap’ on care costs is the best way to use the sub-inflationary increase in expenditure.

Organisationally, the long-awaited Integrated Care Services have come into legal being. Sold as a solution to poor alignment between the NHS and local authorities, a way of harnessing community assets and as a means of delivering £4.75 billion in efficiency savings, they were immediately plunged into an identity crisis; which of these hugely ambitious goals would become the priority?

From the perspectives of local communities and services, these considerations look increasingly remote, almost to the point of being irrelevant – I’ll come back to that later. Here in Oxfordshire, the pandemic has forged many new alliances, some of which are starting to bear diverse fruits. Amongst the many organisations that came together to collect prescriptions and deliver food, there has been a growing awareness of the large gaps in support that existed even before 2020, and an expanding commitment to tackle them. We’ve been very privileged to be part of some of this work locally, in a small way, by facilitating support and peer education groups. We’re very grateful to the Oxford Hub and Sophie Kendall for the opportunity.

Another example of solidarity forged from adversity emerged here when a well-loved project ran into difficulties as the national provider withdrew its support (no names here, for legal reasons). What was really heartening was the way local individuals and agencies immediately rallied round to try and find a way forward. As well as ourselves, Alice Hemming from Co-operative Futures, Grant Hayward and the team at eScalate, honourable mentions go to Anita Wingad from our long-term collaborators Community Catalysts and Annie Davy, our equally long-term friend from The Nature Effect and others too many to list.

So, as well as an emerging crop of grass-roots, hyper-local social enterprises, charities, and informal groups who are keen to step up, we also have a network of mentors and guides that can help them. Of course emerging initiatives also need funding, spaces to work, and talent. In Oxfordshire we are lucky to have a cluster of infrastructure organisations that access national funding to distribute small grants, some of which are now offering community development support alongside the money. New organisations like Makespace are providing affordable pop-up premises, while the stalwart network of Community Centres offers a sustainable backbone to organisations like our own. I should say here how grateful we are for the continuing support of WOCA, which has provided us with an affordable base for many of our own projects over the past decade. My colleagues at Oxford Brookes University have now integrated community development into the curriculum for social work, and support students who want to learn about this kind of work while on placement. Oxford University hosts research networks that make valuable contributions to local learning. Among many local organisations, we have been able to contribute to (and benefit from) their education. While we can’t claim any credit, it is now very gratifying to see former students setting up great local initiatives like Barton Art In Nature.

So, all is well in the Oxfordshire garden? Not quite. While the new generation of local social entrepreneurs are expanding their ambition, the organisations they run are encountering ‘hard to reach’ groups, many of which have found themselves excluded from statutory services after 10+ years of reductions in eligibility for statutory services. If they are to step up, they will need more than mentoring, short-term grants, temporary premises, and a precarious workforce that consists of employees on fixed-term part-time contracts, placement students and volunteers. They will need functioning links to local statutory services, particularly with respect to safeguarding and high-risk behaviours, and proper resourcing. Which takes me back to the national picture. Sustainable development is inevitably linked to a national funding settlement, and local planning and co-ordination is within the remit of Integrated Care Boards – if they can free up enough headroom to look away from acute hospital treatment and backlogs in discharges to see the potential in what’s happening locally and provide the support that’s needed. In our view, the strategy at a national level needs to be led by what’s happening at a local level, rather than the other way around. The Conservative plans for a national cap on care costs have their merits, and it’s easy to sympathise with Labour’s desire to stabilise social care through a new national service. But to shovel more money into the current dysfunctional system of means-testing at the expense of growing community-led support would be perverse. On the other hand, community-led supports are not yet in a position even to take up the slack created over the past decade, let alone contribute to further savings. Achieving this requires a co-ordinated strategy based around a shared vision. At a national level, no-one has done more to create such a vision than Social Care Future.

“We all want to live in the place we call home with the people and things we love, in communities where we look out for one another, doing the things that matter to us. That’s the Social care Future we seek. #socialcarefuture.”

We’ve been proud to have been a small-scale contributor, mainly by contributing to debates on social media. It is amazing that the shared aspiration developed by people who draw on social care, local organisations such as our own and sector leaders has recently found its way into the House of Lords report ‘A Gloriously Ordinary Life’.

In summary then 2022 has given us a lot of reasons to be hopeful. We have a strong and developing network of local people, initiatives and resources. At a national level there seems to be an appetite to ‘tackle social care’ across political parties, a national movement based around a shared vision, and a new inter-organisational infrastructure that could help deliver it. In 2023 we need to build on these successes. In our own small way, we hope to continue to make a contribution.

Jon Hyslop 17/2/22

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