Soon elderly people will have so many votes that politicians will have to listen to them, the annual social services conference has been told. Tash Shifrin reports

'Hope I die before I get old, ' snarled the youthful Roger Daltrey in 1965. But if Roger's feelings have mellowed, he may take heart from last week's annual social services conference in Edinburgh.

For delegates at the conference organised by the Association of Directors of Social Services and the Local Government Association - many of them long past their hotel-trashing years - saw the stereotype of elderly people as awkward bed-blockers swept away.

With social services leaders in a fury over criticism of their handling of children's services by Home Office minister Paul Boateng, older people were a more popular topic.

And Sir Stewart Sutherland, chair of the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care, was in his element.The growing numbers of elderly people, he suggested, might prove a force to be reckoned with.

'A silver tide is flowing in, ' he warned, in a speech that predicted the government would eventually have to concede free personal care as well as nursing care for those in nursing or residential homes.

'I don't know what you think about tides coming in, but I think about King Canute, 'he added, teasingly.

Then, in an unmistakable 'Look, you know' Tony Blair impression, Sir Stewart conjured up a picture of 'our dear prime minister sitting on a throne as the waves lap between his feet'.

Delighted delegates sat back to enjoy the show. 'Prime minister, be prudent, ' came the voice of chancellor Gordon Brown. 'Do what I do, roll up your trouser legs and sit still.'

'I shouldn't do this kind of thing - it'll get me into trouble, ' Sir Stewart added. But not with social services managers, it won't.

If Sir Stewart united the delegates behind his silver banner, shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox was ready to break up any cosy consensus.

Doing his bit for joint working - 'I actually support the concept'- Dr Fox warned that 'the dead hand of NHS administration will fall on local government'.

Dr Fox, usually the best pal of his medical colleagues, tried to present himself as the local authorities' friend. Down with the nasty centralising health service where the writ of 'Whitehall knows best' runs free.

'Anyone who has dealt with the health service will know how cumbersome it can be and how resistant to change and innovation, 'said Dr Fox.

And yes, health service managers, the good doctor is concerned about the NHS's 'democratic deficit', too.

National Council for Voluntary Organisations chief executive Stuart Etherington was also worried about a gap, lambasting the NHS plan for refusing to 'recognise the extent of the engagement' of the voluntary sector.

The private sector has not been ignored in the NHS plan, but only a smattering of delegates turned out to hear Westminster Health Care chief executive Chai Patel's presentation.He told them that he saw the social care world as 'volatile'.

'I'm frightened, 'he admitted. 'I've got£500,000 of investment on the line. . . and I don't know what public policies are going to do.'

The LGA is keen to take the initiative in shaping what those policies do - especially in relation to the NHS plan. Social affairs and health chair Rita Stringfellow was keen to start with service users, not structures.

'Modernising health is about putting patients first; modernising local government is about putting people first. Let's maintain that sharp focus, ' she urged.'This is a time for creative thinking, not brick-laying.'

Incoming ADSS president Moira Gibb was also keen to start from the basics. She called for 'an obsession with the front line'.

The 'major redesign' of the health and social care system 'must begin with the services on the front line, not the structures', she said.

The front line, of course, will come under sharp scrutiny from health secretary Alan Milburn. He called for 'an active welfare state' that was 'geared to independence and not to dependence'.

But he warned delegates: 'Partnerships will be under test this winter. It is already clear that some local winter planning arrangements are founded on stronger joint working between health and social services than others. That cannot be right.'

Where social services were under financial pressure, 'of course they should be receiving help from the local NHS', he added. Lack of cash could Moira Gibb: calling for 'an obsession with the front line'.

not be used 'as an excuse for lack of co-operation'.

Frontline first: incoming ADSS President Moira Gibb Moira Gibb says her own experience of working with the health service has been 'very positive', although she adds: 'I know it's not the same everywhere and there are struggles.'

She believes 'primary care trusts will give a real opportunity for much closer collaboration'.

'I think everyone recognises that acute services suck resources at an amazing rate. We support the strengthening of primary care.'

Ms Gibb qualified as a social worker in Edinburgh in 1975, working in Newcastle and teaching in Preston before becoming social services inspector in Surrey, and area officer in Ealing.

In 1988 she became deputy director of social services for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where she was made director in 1990, becoming executive director of housing and social services within the same council this year.