Some days seem to have a curious symmetry to them, and this week I have had one of those days. It began in the heart of the Whitehall and it ended in a community radio station in East London; but the theme at the heart of the day was constant: what does it mean that we are now living longer?

The first discussion was a roundtable with some of the leading academics and experts in health and social care. (If you are wondering why I was there then you are not alone; I don’t know either, but I was certainly happy to have been invited.) It was chaired by the excellent Professor Martin Knapp of the London School of Economics and we were being asked to think about the implications of ageing on health and social care.

I was asked to say a few words about the impact of longer lives on our ability: “to provide and procure care” although, as I tried to argue, I think this is entirely the wrong way to frame the question. The real question is “how do we support each other as we live longer.”

What I tried to communicate was that there is no evidence that our growing health, and our longer lifespans, will create any crisis. These facts should be a source of celebration. Yet, there is almost no social change, even social progress, which cannot be turned into a crisis if it’s handled in the wrong way.

In my presentation I used data from a report by The Centre for Welfare Reform that we will be publishing in a few months. I had carried out an analysis of of disability, healthcare, social care and community capacity in Barnsley, where:

  • 2% of the population were in very bad health
  • 7% were in bad health
  • 13% had a disability (this group will overlap with the first two to some extent)

Barnsley spent £60 million on social care, however this figure is dwarfed by the care that the citizens of Barnsley provide to each other without pay.

If Barnsley had to pay for the support that is already being provided free, by carers (the official jargon for family and friends) then it would have to spend about £600 million. In other words the support provided by families is about 10 times greater than the support paid for by the community via taxation.

Furthermore, we can go on to estimate how much time and energy is potentially available to the town – what we could call its ‘community capacity’. You can do this by looking at how many people live in Barnsley (about 250,000) and then taking away all the time spent on being a child, time lost to paid work, time in education, time spent caring and time used for ordinary amounts of rest and leisure. This leaves you with an estimate for how much ‘community capacity’ is available. For Barnsley that is equivalent 65,000 whole time equivalent people, with an economic value of over £1 billion.

There is an army of community capacity potentially available to any community (unless its working too hard) and this capacity is probably over 20 times greater than what is spent on social care.

We are society with immense financial wealth, in addition we already have all the human capacity necessary to provide the care and support that we need to look after each other. We will all go through the shared human experiences of sickness, age, disability and death; but we certainly have the resources necessary to ensure that we can all do this in ways that ensure our dignity and mutual respect.

If we focused on our immense community capacity available then there would be no sense of crisis. However community capacity is undermined by a series of negative factors that are driven by Government policy and by the interests of the powerful:

  1. Cuts to social care – Local government funding from central Government has fallen by more than 30% in 6 years and is projected to fall further. Central Government funding used to provide 75% of local government finance. Cuts to social care have been deep and we have seen the number of people supported fall by well over 30% in the same period. I assume that local Government has had to cut its most efficient and low cost supports first, leaving it with a growing percentage of its budget invested in expensive and institutional provision, which is harder to cut. I do not see how the obligations of the Care Act 2014 can be balanced with the desperate situation of local government.
  2. Means-testing of social care – The extreme means-testing of social care does what all means-testing does – it reduces social solidarity and encourages people to divest themselves of their own wealth if they are at any risk of needing social care. This further undermines community capacity and faith in the community’s capacity to support people to get the necessary additional finances they need when illness or disability develops.
  3. Inequality and poor productivity – The UK is the most unequal country in Europe with low productivity and high employment rates. Or to put this another way, more people are having to work longer hours to maintain even a very modest income. For instance, increasingly both partners in a typical family need to work to maintain a modest income, leaving less time for caring or for citizen action. Economic inefficiency and extreme inequality both have the impact of minimising available time for citizen action and community capacity.
  4. Workfare and the collapse of the voluntary sector – There are two powerful but inane dogmas that dominate public policy in the UK: (1) the only useful activity you can do is earn a salary and so pay taxes and (2) the best people to find people work or volunteering opportunities are the DWP or their private-sector agents. Clearly these ridiculous assumptions undermine our ability to tap into people’s real gifts and skills.

So it seems we are in the process of turning what is an opportunity for a longer richer lives into a severe social crisis. We lock a higher proportion of our increasingly limited financial resources into professionalised and institutional care; so we will then be only able to offer support to fewer numbers of people who will be in severe crisis. Alongside institutional care, micro-institutionalisation and the misuse of technology to ‘keep people safe’ will probably grow. At the same time fewer families will feel that they can afford to take care of their own relatives and will so demand ‘care’ from a system that will not be able to offer them support until they reach breaking point. The ongoing pressure to allow euthanasia is consistent with this crazy system problem.

The sad thing is that, while there are so many clever and well intentioned people in the central and local government, it just seems impossible to shift discussion away from the minor problem of ‘funding social care’ to the major opportunity of ‘supporting community capacity.’ It is cynical to think that this is only because a crisis is much more useful to the political elites, but Mencken’s often quoted proposition does sometimes feel so true:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Perhaps, but I hope this is not true, the powerful do not want to recognise that releasing community capacity is about freedom and empowerment. The real solutions we need – those generated by people, families and communities – all require freedom and creativity in order to exist. The great innovations we are seeing from organisations like PFG Doncaster, WomenCentre, IBK Initiatives, Best Buddies UK, and so many more, are all rooted in an awareness that we are free citizens who can choose to act to benefit ourselves and our community.

Capacity is rooted in the actions of free citizens, working together in community. Such capacity cannot be bought, it cannot be bossed, it can only be enabled, supported and liberated.

Despite my fears it was encouraging that so many in the discussion did share my sense of disquiet at the danger of accepting inequality and an on-going public service crisis as the inevitable background to policy-making. But one could still feel the gravitational pull in our discussion of these hobgoblin problems: the fear of increased costs, the fear of increased rationing and fear about what will happen to us at the end of our lives.

After this discussion I was lucky enough to be invited to East London Radio, to be interviewed by Mervyn Eastman. Mervyn Eastman is an inspiring leader and social worker who has established the Change Agents Coop with the wonderful Cheryl Barrott. The Centre for Welfare Reform has recently joined the Coop as an organisational member.

Together we discussed how the idea of citizenship must become central to our thinking about ageing. Citizenship, everyday citizenship, is the foundation for building a good life for ourselves and building good communities together. We explored how old age was not a problem; but a society that insists on treating it as a problem will certainly end up creating one.

What made this radio interview especially sweet was that I was able to indulge my love of music. A rather sad admission on my part is that I have always dreamed about what I would choose if I was ever invited on Desert Island Discs or on Radio 3’s Private Passions. For East London Radio I picked:

  • Communication Breakdown by Led Zeppelin
  • The Nightwatch by King Crimson
  • Anyway by The Roches
  • A Survivor from Warsaw by Arnold Schoenberg

As I left the studio, to head home to Sheffield, I found myself in the community cafe and bookshop that was also the home of the community radio station. On the shelves were some fantastic European novels I’d not heard of and so I indulged myself by buying 4 books to take home.

So my day ended with this sense of contrast. On the one hand, in the bowels of Whitehall, intelligent people were struggling, against the grain, to stop the system turning old age into a new social problem. Meanwhile, on the streets of East London, ordinary people were busy building, sharing and supporting one another to lead richer, better lives.

As ever Christ’s words help. The Vulgate puts it as “sufficit diei malitia sua” which could be loosely translated it as: Start by tackling today’s injustices.

If Government really wants to help us ensure that we can take good care of each other in the future then there are four pressing problems it could tackle now:

  1. Protect social care funding
  2. End social care means-testing
  3. Radically reduce income inequality
  4. End the stigma and control of the DWP’s benefit systems

Do those 4 things and human capacity will flourish and many of tomorrow’s problems will never arise.