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Scunthorpe: the best place to grow old

ASK ANY 60-year-old what they hope to do when they retire and most will wax lyrical about a country cottage or a retirement home by the sea. Enquire where the home will be and few will say North Lincolnshire. But that, according to an Independent on Sunday survey, is the place to be for pensioners.

At the heart of the county is Scunthorpe, the butt of many a joke, and on the coast of north east Lincolnshire lies the faded resort of Cleethorpes. But it is tops when it comes to looking after its senior citizens. Scenic Cumbria, idyllic North Yorkshire and Poole, retirement venues which top well-off pensioners' wish lists, are way down the league table when it comes to providing council services for the elderly.

North Lincolnshire spends pounds 83.30 for every resident over 65. Rutland, bottom of the league, managed pounds 56.10.

Until recently it was difficult to compare one local authority with another. But for the past five years the Government has required councils to compile and publish "performance indicators". The Independent on Sunday has analysed all available data in order to draw up a league table.

Crucial indicators are council help for elderly people living at home, home help and meals on wheels provision and the number, and quality, of residential places for those who can no longer look after themselves. And, for people looking after aged parents, the availability of council respite care.

Care workers in Scunthorpe have welcomed the survey's findings as a vindication of their policies. "I'm not surprised," said Paul Hemingway of the town's Age Concern, as he handed out light bulbs and looked for volunteer gardeners. "I brought my mum over from Liverpool and the difference was amazing. As a town I think we do look after our old ones."

Geoff Lockwood, a retired policeman who runs the town's Shopmobility scheme, which hands out motorised scooters to elderly people, said: "We've got 15 vehicles which cost pounds 3,000 each. But we don't charge for their use. Go to Skegness and they charge people pounds 10 a day. They've put the money in here and it does make quite a difference."

Surprisingly, London councils, which have poor reputations overall, often perform better for the elderly than those in the leafy shires. For example, the rate of provision of meals services was higher in London than elsewhere in England.

Peter Chowney, formerly of the Audit Commission and now in the private sector, says: "If you are poor and elderly it can be better to live in an inner city area than a rich county. In the shires there are often more older people who can afford to pay for private care. This means that in some cases the services may not be as comprehensive as in urban authorities."

The survey shows big variations in the number of respite night services for carers. Tower Hamlets provides just 11 per 1,000 head of population and Buckinghamshire 19, compared to Bradford's 207.

The figures show that many councils inspect all residential homes. But there are notable failures. Dorset - which comes second from bottom in our table - only manages 45 per cent. Tower Hamlets inspects 48 per cent, and Sandwell and Portsmouth 49 per cent. Rutland - the overall poorest performer - inspected 60 per cent of required inspections.

Gail Elkington, of Help the Aged, says: "We think that performance indicators can be useful to begin to measure the performance of local authorities in terms of the service they offer to older people. However, they are only indicators and as such cannot provide us with the full picture."

As more indicators become available, it will become easier for the public to make informed decisions about their councils. Parents now use school league tables to make decisions about where the best schools are. In the same way, older people and their relatives are beginning to use performance indicators to make judgements about where best to live in retirement.