Why pressure is piling on the care system from all sides - Sarah Coles

When the government is searching down the back of the sofa for cash to shovel into a black hole, you can be sure that no potential tax grab is overlooked, so it shouldn’t come as a huge shock that council tax will be hiked alongside so many others.

This is the last thing that hard-pressed taxpayers need right now, and to add insult to injury, may not be enough to protect vital social care.

Ever since the government highlighted the massive shortfall in care funding, pledged to fill it with extra National Insurance, and then u-turned on the hike, the question of how care will be funded has been hanging over our heads. The government has kicked much-needed social reform into the long grass yet again, which will keep a lid on the rises in care costs. It has also announced more spending on care. However, given the extent of the shortfalls, there’s still every chance people could struggle to get the care they need.

Additional spending

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Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt. Mr Hunt was keen to emphasise government support for social care during his latest statement to the House of Commons.Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt. Mr Hunt was keen to emphasise government support for social care during his latest statement to the House of Commons.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt. Mr Hunt was keen to emphasise government support for social care during his latest statement to the House of Commons.

Social care was one area Jeremy Hunt was keen to emphasise government support for, but as ever, in the small print the ‘word soup’ disguises exactly what new help is available. The government announced an extra £2.8bn in 2023-2024 and £4.7bn in 2024-2025 to help support adult social care and discharge.

However, when you break it down, it’s not quite so clear. The additional cash from council tax has been estimated by the Local Government Association at £309m for every 1 per cent rise in Council Tax. The social care portion of the council tax rise is just 2 per cent - which is £609m – kicking in from 2023/24.

We also know there will be £1bn of new grant funding in 2023-24, and £1.7bn in 2024/25, plus £1bn to support discharges from hospitals. However, it’s unclear whether these are current discharges, or will come alongside an even heavier burden on the care system.

Meanwhile, there’s no extra cash in the current tax year, and 94 per cent of adult social services directors in England say they don’t have the funding or the workforce to meet the care costs of older and disabled people in their area this winter. Fewer than one in 10 think they can manage with existing resources right now, and three in four couldn’t cope if a large care provider failed.

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Pressure is piling on the care system from all sides. It’s not just funding, it’s staff too. Some 90 per cent of adult social services directors say people are leaving the caring workforce because rising prices mean they need to find a better-paid job elsewhere. It’s hardly surprising: the Health Foundation found that over a quarter of the UK’s residential care workers lived in, or were on the brink of, poverty.

Meanwhile, nursing homes and care homes are either folding, or are handing back council contracts, because they don’t pay well enough to cover their rising costs. 64 per cent of councils have reported this problem in the past four months.

Pressure on the NHS is also having a knock-on impact, because those who are waiting for treatment are requiring more care, and then after treatment they’re being discharged with higher care needs.

As a result, care is falling well short of the level people need. The number of people waiting for an assessment of their needs, or for their care plan to be reviewed, is up 24 per cent since November. During this time, of those waiting for an assessment, a third have been waiting for six months or more.

Council tax hike

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But while we all want to pay our fair share to support those who need it most, council tax rises of 5 per cent will come on top of horrendous price rises on all sides – including another jump in energy bills in April. Back in 1990, people rioted in the streets at the thought of a poll tax at £357 per person – which with two people in the household would come to £714. Taking inflation into account that’s the equivalent of £1,613 today – we passed that level in 2018, and this year will see average council tax rise above £2,000.

Right now, the care system needs all the help it can get, and the government has decided this should come from Council Tax, but that doesn’t mean anyone should be paying over the odds. If you think think you might be paying too much Council Tax, there are steps you can take to challenge it.

Council Tax bands are based on what your house was worth on 1 April 1991. Unfortunately, because the houses all had to be valued at the same time, corner-cutting meant some valuations weren’t terribly accurate. You can challenge your valuation, which could bring down your council tax – and could mean a refund of hundreds or thousands of pounds.

However, before you start, it’s worth being aware that challenges can mean the valuation is raised instead of lowered – so you end up paying an even higher rate of council tax. It means you need to do a bit of homework before you try it.

Check if you’re in the same band as your neighbours

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If you’re on good terms, the easiest approach is to ask neighbours in very similar properties to you what they pay. If you’d rather not ask, you can check the Valuation Office Agency website. If there’s a difference, you might be onto something.

Work out roughly what your house was worth in 1991

Unless it was actually sold in 1991, you’re looking for a rough ballpark. Zoopla lists historic sold prices, so you can put in your postcode, and search for similar properties sold around that time. Then compare them to the list on the VOA and see roughly what band you should have been put in. This will show whether it’s you or your neighbours who are likely to be on the wrong band.

Contact the VOA

If you’re on the wrong band, contact the VOA. The terminology you need to use is different depending on how long you’ve lived in the property: if you’ve been there for less than six months you can ask for a review, whereas if you’ve been there longer you can make a proposal. The easiest approach in either case is to call them.

House prices stagnate

Office for National Statistics figures show that the average house price stayed roughly the same between August and September, and although it meant prices were up an average of 9.5 per cent in a year, it’s the latest in a long line of signals that indicate we could be close to the peak.

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This is a clear indication that the triple threat of rising house prices, higher mortgage rates and soaring prices in general are taking their toll. As we add a recession to the mix in the coming months, we may well see prices start to slide.

It’s miserable news for anyone trading down, and while it seems like good news for first time buyers and those trading up, they face bigger risks. They may be stretching their budgets and are likely to have relatively little equity. It means they run a higher risk of negative equity in the months to come, so while a move may be more affordable, it’s definitely not easier.