FOLLOWING the publication of Oxfordshire's 11th annual health report on Wednesday, health reporter Chris Ord takes a more in-depth look at the challenges facing the county. Today, the struggle to house NHS workers in one of the least-affordable counties in the country.

AFFORDABLE housing must be provided for key workers in Oxordshire in order to ensure the future health of the county, says the director of public health.

In his annual public health report, Dr John McWilliam highlighted a ‘cocktail’ of health issues which continue to pile pressure on the county’s health services, such as the growing and ageing population, a rise in obesity and an increase in mental health referrals.

However, he said the lack of housing for lower-paid workers, such as newly qualified nurses, was now also a major factor in that mix.

The well-documented struggles of Oxfordshire’s hospitals to attract sufficient staff has been widely blamed on the high cost of living and high house prices in the area.

According to the Oxfordshire Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA), the county needs to build more than 83,000 new homes in the next 12 years in order to meet the expected demand of a growing population.

In the report Dr McWilliam says: “Of course building houses is one thing.

“Being able to afford to live in them is another – and is a pressing problem in Oxfordshire.

“Expensive housing makes it difficult for lower-paid workers and their families to live in Oxfordshire.

“This leads to the staff shortages we see across the county – for example, there are over 500 nursing vacancies in Oxfordshire at any one time and home care workers are also strongly affected.”

Last winter hospitals across the county were forced to close hundreds of beds because there were not enough staff to safely care for that number of patients.

In June, bosses at the county’s two NHS trusts, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust joined calls for a pay weighting to be applied to key workers.

However, until then, key workers will still struggle to afford to live in the area unless more affordable housing is provided.

In the public health report, which highlights the current state of the county’s overall health outlook, Dr McWilliam said it was vital for authorities to work together to ensure a sustainable future workforce.

He said: “It’s the whole cocktail of factors around demographic change.

“We have more houses coming in Oxfordshire, more people, more children, we know the population is ageing, we know people are getting more obese which leads to more disease, we know the difficulties in getting a workforce.

“That all means all organisations need to work together like they have been doing over the last year to find solutions."

He added: “What I’m saying is it’s now a major factor in the mix.

“When planning anything we have to think about the workforce of the future, some of the answers might come through new technology, running services differently, but the answer will lie in partnership.”