South Shropshire is a great place to retire, as is well recognised. But over time this does create challenges, as the proportion of elderly people living here increases. Over 65s now make up 28.6% of our local population, compared to just 18% nationally. Remarkably, this has increased from 20.9% when I was first elected.
The welcome reason for this increase is that we are living longer, healthier lives. The number of people aged 90 or over in South Shropshire has almost doubled since 2005, particularly driven by more men becoming nonagenarians, reflecting healthier lifestyle choices including reduced smoking rates. But clearly as we live longer, we are more likely to need health and social care support.
Challenges around an ageing population are not unique to Shropshire, though are more pronounced in rural areas, given additional pressure around workforce planning and transportation. So a national approach is needed to ensure the most vulnerable receive the support they need in old age.
At the end of March I met the Social Care Minister to discuss the Social Care Green Paper, which will consider a range of options to ensure our social care system meets the needs of our ageing society and is sustainable for the long term.
I emphasised the need to ‘rural proof’ any policy changes, given the additional cost of providing services in rural areas, particularly pressing for social care providers. For example, in cities carers can move between appointments quickly, whereas in rural areas carers will be available for fewer daily appointments given time needed to travel between them.
It is clear we need to be open to new ideas, and the Minister will invite responses to a consultation on the Green Paper. I shall work with rural groups and other rural MPs to make a powerful case for a more balanced system.
We have already seen some recognition from government of the growing scale of the problem. Councils have been allowed to raise social care precepts to meet local statutory obligations. In the wider system an extra £650 million for social care in 2019-20 was included in last year’s Budget: £240 million to help people leave hospital when ready and receive the right care to meet their needs; and £410 million to improve local councils’ care offer for older people, those with disabilities, and children.
But funding alone will not solve this significant challenge for any future government. Reform is needed to ensure health and social care services are better joined up, and that social care changes to meet the needs of an increasingly elderly population. Fortunately, technology opens up a world of possibility in delivering improved care at reduced cost.
For example, Shropshire Council is one of the leaders in looking at innovative ways to meet the growing social care challenge. I am pleased it has launched a pilot in Broseley using technology to combat isolation, through schemes than do not replace human interaction but rather facilitate it. This type of innovation in care has led to national award nominations, showing Shropshire at the forefront of best practice.
I know innovation through technology is a passion of the Secretary of State for Health & Social Care, so I hope that with his encouragement to embrace new thinking, coupled with local innovation here in Shropshire, we will adapt well to meeting health and social care needs of current and future generations.