This week's annual social services conference should be the last, argues Stephen Burke. It's time to include health and social care in a single event

I suspect that few HSJ readers are aware that the annual social services conference is taking place in Torquay this week. And I am sure even fewer are attending what is by far the biggest event in the social services calendar.

Given the changing agendas nationally and locally, this must be a missed opportunity. A succession of national policy initiatives call on health and social care to work in partnership.

'Removing the barriers' - this year's social services conference theme - sounds like it addresses questions of partnership, modernising government and social exclusion.

Certainly some of the issues will be discussed - including that beloved barrier, the 'Berlin Wall'.

But the conference still leaves social services in isolation.

The delegates will be almost exclusively either directors or assistant directors of social services or councillors with lead responsibility for social services. As local authorities develop new political structures, so social services lead members have often taken on other responsibilities such as social inclusion, children's and community services, and public health. Lead members are part of the council-wide strategic approach.

Increasingly, too, the role of director of social services is being subsumed under a much broader job title.

The conference needs to reflect this. But I also look forward to the day when it brings together a much wider range of colleagues from local government, health and other sectors. Some argue that health, housing, education and others all have their own specialist conferences - so why shouldn't social services? This may ring true but it does not address the concern that social services must be inclusive if it is to make a real impact on the lives of children, families and elderly people in the community.

As chair of the Association of London Government's health and social services panel, I have been visiting London boroughs to see what's happening on the ground.

Every example of good practice we have been shown has involved joint working - from youth justice in Lewisham and mental health centres in Camden to Care Connects in Merton and Quality Protects in Sutton.

Considerable work involving a wide range of agencies is going on across the capital to develop a London health strategy in advance of the new Greater London Authority.

If we are going to make a difference to the people we are serving, we clearly can't do it on our own. Social services has to be in the thick of the corporate and partnership agendas - to make sure that the most vulnerable people in our communities are not excluded and to ensure that we deliver best value.

A year ago I gave a presentation to the social services conference about the new political structures in Hammersmith and Fulham. There was scepticism about modernisation in local government - 'it may be all right for you but it won't work where we come from'. I am pleased that 12 months later many local authorities are embracing change ahead of government legislation. This change provides real opportunities to get key issues such as health improvement on to the corporate agenda, to facilitate proper scrutiny of services and the development of new ways of delivering those services, and to promote 'joined-up working' and a quicker response to emerging government programmes. This is the way to deliver lasting improvements locally and generate opportunities for everyone in the community. And there is also an important opportunity to involve service users. Many authorities have set up panels or forums of elderly people - for example, giving them a new voice to air their concerns.

Such involvement helps to promote wider understanding of council services and has been crucial to developing new models of service delivery.

But it's not just about social services - it's about including residents - often for the first time - in what really matters to them. It provides a sounding board for health agencies, too.

From that basis we can draw in the police, urban regeneration and training agencies and others who can help lift the families who use social services towards new opportunities. If we are serious about these new agendas, and about integrating health and social care planning, then we need an annual conference that includes all the partners.

Councillor Stephen Burke is chair of the Association of London Government's health and social services panel, and a non-executive director of Riverside Community Health Care trust.