What is social care? It might sound a simple question but a lot of us don’t know. Research shows that the public has little understanding of how social care operates and even less understanding of how it is funded.

A typical definition might be the extra care or support that some people need to lead an active, independent life. But beneath this answer lies a complex and changing system. With swingeing cuts to local government, social care is shrinking to a skeleton service only for those with the greatest needs and the least means. If councils like Northamptonshire are to balance their budget, they might not even be able to provide that.

The odds are stacked against innovation in social care. But despite that, creative ideas are bubbling up – ideas that help us to reimagine what social care is and what it could be. With funding from Power to Change, the New Economics Foundation has carried out research on the role of community businesses in the future of social care. Community businesses are local organisations that emerge when communities come together to address challenges they face. They are connected to the people and places that they are embedded in – and a small but growing number are using these connections to develop social care models.

What these models have in common is care that is genuinely social. Recognising that loneliness kills us, community businesses are bringing people together. Sometimes this is around a common endeavour, like in Wigan where Greenslate Community Farm involve disabled people in their community-wide mission to produce sustainably grown food. In South Bristol BS3 Community take children from their nursery to visit a nearby care home twice a week. And in ultra-rural North East Dartmoor, NEDCare help older people continue to live independently in their homes. Shared local roots help care givers and recipients to build relationships, overcoming the boundary that typically separates professionals from service users. One carer told us a story about meeting a nervous client for the first time – when she walked through the door the client visibly relaxed, saying the last time I saw you, you were twelve!”

What these models have in common is care that is genuinely social.

This kind of social care remains on the margins. Commissioners are increasingly trying to shift towards it, understanding that sustainable social care works with people to help them live the best lives they possibly can – rather than letting them struggle until they can’t cope and then using crisis as a signal to step in. But the chokehold on funding is hampering their efforts.

What we need is the political will to invest in the future of social care. Research into the long-term care system in Japan suggests that people are willing to pay more for the collective provision of social care if they are confident that the system is a good one. This is not surprising but it is important to reiterate.

Maybe, then, another potential role for community businesses and other social care pioneers is to build a movement from the bottom-up, which – with the necessary support and funding – can spread understanding of what good social care can and should be, and insist on change.

Read the full report here

Photo: BS3 Community Development, Greater Bedminster, Bristol