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8 July 2024

How local authorities can support older people’s substantial contribution to local communities

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This article first appeared in the Municipal Journal on 20 June.

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Local government faces unprecedented funding challenges, presenting difficult decisions on where to make savings. This can lead to an increase reliance on digital solutions and cuts to community resources.

But this approach can exclude different groups of residents including older people and risks limiting the substantial contributions they make to their local communities, writes the Centre for Ageing Better’s Deputy Director for Localities Natalie Turner.

It is understandable that local authorities are seeking out new ways of working when their funding in real terms has been reduced by a quarter since 2016.  

According to the Local Government Association, 85% of councils said they would still have to make cost savings to balance their 2024/25 budget. 

This leaves most authorities, if not all, facing difficult decisions.   

Social care costs are increasing, for every age group, making it harder for local government to find the funds to invest in community-based services, that both improve quality of life, and can reduce, prevent, or delay the need for care in the first place. 

The Centre for Ageing Better’s new society chapter for our State of Ageing 2023/24 report details the significant contributions older people make to their communities in terms of volunteering, unpaid care and engagement with local community life. 

But cost cutting in local authorities is having a knock-on effect on older people’s lives, making it harder for many to get out and about and continue to make these significant contributions.

Spending on community development and library services is almost half (45%) what it was in 2010/11. There has been a significant decrease in funding for many services such as community centres, public halls and public toilets.

The reduced provision of local libraries and other community information and gathering spaces is making it harder for people to find free spaces to interact and connect with their communities.

Reduction in funding for public toilets and the maintenance of seating and public pathways creates further barriers and disincentives for people to go out into their local communities and stay physically active.  

Our State of Ageing report details that while older people continue to have a greater sense of belonging and satisfaction with their local area than other age groups, this has fallen to below pre-pandemic levels. National and local government should be very worried about this trend and seek to arrest it. 

Older people are huge contributors to communities. That includes volunteering formally (giving unpaid help through groups, clubs or organisations) and informally (giving unpaid help to other people who are not relatives, such as shopping for a neighbour), which people aged 65-74 are consistently the most likely to. 

Older people of working age also provide the most unpaid care of any age group with 1.7 million people in this age group providing unpaid care.  

And older people increasingly contribute to their communities by spending money in local businesses.  

The risk of losing these contributions and goodwill over the long term, by not tackling these barriers, cannot be understated. 

There are no national programmes and few national policy incentives for local government to consider ageing and older people in their plans and priorities. 

This can mean that local authorities primarily view older people as needy or expensive users of social care rather than recognising and celebrating the contribution they make or exploring ways to help facilitate this and their life satisfaction. 

One example of how the drive for cost cutting plays out in the lives of older adults is the move to digital services and information that we’ve seen accelerate over the last few years.  

 

The use of digital tools such as websites, email communication and apps offer the potential for practical and cheaper solutions.

Take for example the growth in use of digital apps to pay parking charges which have become widely used with some authorities removing on-street parking machines in preference for digital-only payment methods. 

But the move to parking apps has attracted criticism from some motorists who feel that a lack of smartphone ownership precludes them from being able to pay for parking and thus limiting their interaction in their local communities.  

Pursuing an app-only approach risks excluding the one in four people aged over-65 who do not own a smartphone and so cannot pay by app for parking.  

It also risks excluding many people of all ages on low incomes who are priced out from owning a smartphone, or people with disabilities who might find apps difficult to navigate, or people living in rural areas where mobile reception is poor.  

Car parking systems should work for everybody. Compromises can be found that allow for simple, non-digital options to remain available and to avoid punishing people for not owning a smartphone.  

Parking apps are one piece of a larger puzzle. An increasingly digital world can leave many who may not have 
digital skills or lack confidence feeling shut out.  

As the Centre for Ageing Better’s new society chapter of the State of Ageing 2023/24 report details, only half of people in the UK over the age of 75 have these skills and 43% of internet users aged 65 and over are limited in the activities they carry out while online.  

A decade ago, the government set out its Digital Inclusion Strategy 2014. But there has been limited progress to ensure that everyone is able to access key information and services that are increasingly provided online.    

If we’re to avoid leaving people behind, local authorities must offer non-digital means for residents to access services and communicate with their local authority.  

Government and service providers should also invest in schemes to support those who are digitally excluded to get online using good practice. This must include universal access to the internet, coverage and data access, especially in rural areas, as well as making devices more available to all, and personalised support to give confidence to people in developing digital skills.  

Facilitating greater community involvement and removal of barriers to participation can be achieved in a low-cost way.

So what can councils do?

More than 75 places across the country have already signed up to become an Age-friendly Community – part of a unique UK network of communities supported by the Centre for Ageing Better.  

Councils that have made this commitment, are using their power to bring stakeholders and residents together, by following an evidence-based framework developed by the World Health Organisation.   

Councils that make this commitment are also showing that they listen to older people, include older people from diverse and under-represented communities, and involving them in shaping local services.  

By signing up they also have the chance to learn from and share with other localities in the network.

Local authorities can as a minimum appoint a councillor who acts as a champion for older people who can ensure that public sector equality duty around age as a protected characteristic is considered and included in local authorities’ strategy and planning.   

Older people already make a substantial contribution to local communities. But by removing existing barriers, and avoiding the creation of new barriers, local authorities could help unleash even greater engagement and participation.

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