HUNDREDS of beds lay empty in care homes across Somerset as the council works to keep people in their own homes.

Figures from a Freedom of Information request by your County Gazette revealed across the county, 694 beds are empty.

The figures come as care homes face increasing financial pressures in an ageing population.

In Taunton Deane and West Somerset, there are 156 empty beds, 284 in Sedgemoor, 143 in south Somerset and 111 in Mendip.

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CHALLENGES: Stephen Chandler, director of adult social care

Stephen Chandler, director of Adult Social Services for Somerset County Council, said: "Historically, local enterprises set up care homes in Somerset. We don't have many big national firms.

"It's national policy to help people stay in their homes as long as possible.

"There's lots of support when people come out of hospital. If someone went into hospital after a fall, their chance of leaving would be less."

During a 2018 study from accountants Moore Stephens, it was revealed there had been an 83 per cent rise in the number of care home businesses entering insolvency. It went from 81 per cent in 2018/17 up to 148 in 2017/18.

Reasons include the increase of the living wage.

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RESEARCH: Lee Causer, partner at Moore Stephens

Lee Causer, a partner from Moore Stephens, said: “Care homes should be benefitting from the demographics of the UK – an ageing population. But they are not.

“Care homes are not receiving enough local Government funding to sustain the profit margins necessary to run a successful business."

“Many companies are finding it difficult to cope with the rising costs associated with the care industry."

“Without additional income, care homes will not be able to offer the levels of care required whilst remaining solvent.”

But Mr Chandler says it's about finding a balance between supporting care homes to stay in business, and doing what's best for older people.

He added: "It's difficult to balance, because it's positive if people stay in their own homes, with their loved ones and remain independent.

"There's a reduced reliance on care homes.

"The council still funds around 1,000 people in care homes at any one time.

"There's still lots of people using the service, because it might be the right model for them.

"There's still a need for care homes, but just not as much as there was in the past, because we absolutely want to keep people in their own homes."

In Wellington, Popham Court Care Home was forced to close due to financial difficulties.

The care home, managed by Somerset Care, closed its doors in October 2018.

The then-chief executive, Dr Jane Townson, said many care homes across the UK were facing the need to upgrade buildings - with Popham Court being no exception.

At the time of the announcement, Dr Townson, said: "Despite strong occupancy, Popham Court has been recording financial losses for a number of years.

"This is due to rising costs - particularly National Living Wage, which we welcome for staff but it has to be paid for. Without a corresponding increase in income average fee rates do not cover the costs of care delivery.

"Somerset Care is a not-for-profit company with no shareholders. Any surplus we make is reinvested in the business for the benefit of our customers and staff.

"Unfortunately, we cannot sustain loss-making services indefinitely as we need to ensure the long term viability of the whole company.

"We are very sorry this decision has been necessary."

While many people are still using care homes, Somerset County Council says it aims to keep standards high.

More than 90 per cent of care homes in Somerset are rated 'outstanding' or 'good' by the Care Quality Commission.

"Even though we have a reduced demand, we need to make sure the quality is second to none," Mr Chandler said.

"We are working with homes across the county to improve the quality.

"If a care home needs to close, there's a financial cost to us. We want to keep the sector vibrant."