CHESHIRE'S social and health care system is in crisis following the closure of 22 private care homes in just over two years, it has emerged.
Since January, 1999, six homes in West Cheshire, five in central Cheshire and nine in East Cheshire have closed.
It has meant the loss of 257 residential beds and 266 nursing beds.
And yesterday it was announced there would be two further closures, in Macclesfield and Nantwich, resulting in the loss of another 61 residential places.
The east of the county is currently worst hit by the crisis with homes having long waiting lists and, on several occasions, patients have been forced to stay in hospital because of a lack of beds.
Jo Williams, Cheshire County Council's director of social services, said: 'The situation is already critical in some parts of Cheshire.
'If we continue like this, it will certainly become critical throughout the county.
'The Government has persuaded local authorities to use the private sector for residential and nursing care, in addition to concentrating on helping people stay in their own homes and communities as long as possible.'
Private sector operators say they can no longer afford to run the homes.
Some already refuse to accept council contract fees without substantial top-up payments from residents.
They are blaming closures on profits being slashed by spiralling staffing costs due to an increased minimum wage and the latest nurses' pay award.
It is also believed that rising property prices are persuading operators that it is better to cut their losses and release the capital tied up in bricks and mortar.
Social services chiefs are to write to health secretary Alan Milburn to ask the government to take action before the social and health provision collapses.
Coun Lynn Hardwick, chairman of social services, said: 'We will be asking the government to allow for this extremely serious situation when allocating grant monies to the authority, particularly as Cheshire is already unfairly penalised by a system which favours the South East.'
East Cheshire lost 63 residential and 196 nursing beds in the first three months of this year and, since March 31, there have been a further three closures. The county council, which currently spends around £45m a year on residential and nursing care, is in talks with the local health authorities to discuss the possibility of pooling budgets in an emergency joint approach to the crisis.
A report by social services will be put to the East Cheshire Primary Care Board next week.
It highlights the 'great stress' placed on the health and care system by the closures.
Locality manager Louise Sutton said: 'There have been delayed discharges from hospitals and this may lead to an inability to place people who can no longer be supported by domiciliary care services in the community.'