Tackling many of Dorset’s challenges, most people are unaware of the importance, scope and complexity of Jane’s multi-faceted role
Since 2019, Jane Somper has been the councillor for Beacon ward, one of the most rural in Dorset. As such, she is responsible for the numerous Blackmore Vale villages from the edge of Shaftesbury out to East Stour, across to Manston and Shroton and back to the giddy heights of Ashmore and Charlton Down.
For a seemingly sleepy, sparsely-populated ward, Jane is kept busier than you might expect for a local councillor … not to mention regularly being found on Twitter sharing the stunning views from Fontmell and Compton Downs as she sneaks a break to walk her dog.
For the last 18 months Jane has been a lead member in Dorset Council’s Adult Social Care and Health team.
In May, council leader Spencer Flower asked her to take on the cabinet role with additional responsibility for housing.
Jane says: ’That’s an area I hadn’t dealt with before, so a big learning curve for me.
‘But of course I now have my own lead members; Graham Carr-Jones has worked on housing for maybe 18 years. He’s incredibly passionate about it – totally understands it – and I’m relying on him as I learn.’
‘Dorset Council doesn’t have its own properties. So my job is around how we fill the gaps that we clearly have. We need to be able to facilitate much more social housing. As a council, we do that by working with certain providers. We simply don’t provide ‘council houses’ ourselves, though I know many people still believe that we do.
‘But it’s such a huge undertaking, and so difficult – tussling with both local issues and those on a national scale around housing supply, land banking, certain unscrupulous developers … I’ve been doing this for less than a month, and already I’m seeing the possibilities of what Dorset Council can achieve in working with housing associations, because, contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of very good ones.
‘And of course they get labelled, because they’re a “developer”, when they’re actually doing really good work. We have to help them, in order to facilitate the right kind of houses we so desperately need.
Broad life experience
Jane now has a massive remit – she has ultimate control and responsibility for around 45 per cent of the entire council budget. So what rests on Jane’s shoulders particularly heavily?
‘It’s alarming when you put it like that. What am I responsible for? What does fall on my shoulders? That makes you stop and think.
‘It’s clear when I talk to people that they often don’t really understand what Adult Social Care is. It’s a whole raft of things – yes, it’s care homes, but it’s also who comes to help you a bit when you’ve come out of hospital. Or who sorts it if you need a little care with your daily living … it comes into so many areas, and yet very few people really know who’s providing which service.
‘Dorset Council has the highest age demographic in the entire country. That’s something that really focuses my mind – what the future requirements of those people are going to be. There’s a very negative narrative around “the elderly” in Dorset, but you know, the retired have such broad life experience. And they’re contributing huge amounts to their communities; the voluntary and community sector really can’t survive without them. I think we all know they are a huge asset.
‘I’ve got a lot of parish councils in my ward, and these are the exact people who sit on those councils. They’re the people who have experience in business, and law and accountancy, in medicine … they know their stuff, and they make things happen. They want to help and they have the time. And they’re really good at organising things!
A stitch in time
‘So in that sense, I think we’re actually really lucky in Dorset to have that wealth of knowledge to tap into. Of course, as people get older, things start to happen, and then they’re going to need a bit of care and support in return. That’s where adult services steps in.
‘A piece of work that’s being carried out at the moment is the re-ablement service, which is basically short-term rehabilitation. When people no longer need hospital care, but are not quite ready to go home, we need to get them out of the hospital environment to a place where they are able to get up every day, to get dressed, to start to re-engage with cooking and organising their own medication … building them up to a point where they can go home. This should prevent that yo-yo of going home, and then bouncing back into hospital again. That’s obviously an investment, but it pays strong dividends.
‘If people are living their strongest, best life, the most fulfilled way that they can, that’s better for everyone. And of course, along the line somewhere – either for Adult Social Care or for Health – there are savings when you act pre-emptively, and fewer people are coming into crisis.
‘A couple living in my ward came to see me recently. They are both in their 80s, and the gentleman is in the early stages of dementia. The wife is probably not in the best of health herself, but she’s keeping it together. However, she’s been getting stressed about dealing with it all – there’s lots of paperwork, lots of things she’s trying to understand and she’s been getting really anxious, which is impacting her own health. So we are able to step in and offer a little support, guidance on how to get appropriate financial and medical assistance, or tech – we have a lot of fantastic tech! This gentleman still likes to go for a walk, and of course she worries about him. But now she can track him with the tech, so she doesn’t worry nearly so much. There’s lots of other options for low-level monitoring, and any issues can be picked up quickly, and then acted on, perhaps by a social worker. Just being able to offer that tiny bit of support has helped her enormously.
She’s feeling far less anxious and more confident.
A real culture-shift
‘The key is that early intervention, preventing the escalation. My overall aim is just better outcomes – looking at where we can intervene, providing that early help so things don’t get to crisis point.
‘Because everything – everything – we do has to be person-centred. That’s another area we’re working to change, ensuring that all the decisions made around someone’s care are what that person wants. That’s really important. Take a domestic abuse issue, for example. It’s never straightforward, and it’s about understanding what is the outcome that person wants – and not what we think it should be. The view of the care worker or social worker should be removed from the situation.
‘There’s a real culture shift to understanding and properly listening to the person.
Because if you’re providing what people want, rather than what you think they need, the whole process is much more positive. You’re working together, rather than dragging someone with you. You know, I’m not an expert. My team are the experts – and they’re so good at what they do.
But when you simplify my job, it is helping people to live their best lives in the way that they want to.
We’re just there to provide help and support when they want it.