The government announced yesterday that Housing Benefit scheme will still pay the rent element funding for Supported Housing services rather than Universal Credit paying it.
The frontispiece is below and the decision and other comments it makes in its 24 pages can be read here (pdf) and I would urge anyone concerned about or interested in supporting vulnerable people to read and which pages 23 and 24 are the most important and say so much.
Here I look at what this announcement does mean and make many detailed comments about the chronically failing UK supported housing system that is in urgent crisis despite the hyperbolic nonsense written by housing people about the actual decision that only benefits landlords and not the supporting housing system per se and most definitely does not benefit the residents in supported housing – the real issue and real people that matter.
I offer no apologies for this long and detailed overview which at times is painful reading and often complex. Yet that is what supported housing is and reflects its individual nature that cannot ever be reduced to generic sameness. Its complexity is inherent and why this post was originally titled “Government knows bugger all about Supported Housing” meaning all governments I have seen in 25 years in this niche of a housing sector and yesterdays announcement only hardened my view … Okay, time to get on with it.
What does this mean for Supported Housing?
The most obvious answer to that is to say what it does NOT mean which is that supported housing is now secure with secure funding as a number of UK housing bodies and commentators have been saying in very deluded and highly misleading terms. Take the typical tweet below as an example:
This is dangerously misleading from Inside Housing in so many ways and I will use as an example to explain what the government announcement means.
Refuges have been saved from the axe is absolute nonsense and are still at a high level of closure. The main reason is that the government U-turn decision ONLY dealt with the funding of housing cost. Refuges – like many other supported housing services – have two key funding streams of housing AND support funding and the funding for housing costs or what HB will pay can be less than 50% of the total funding needed to run a domestic abuse refuge.
Hence, the securing of the funding for the housing costs element cannot be said to make refuge funding and survival secure. It is rank hyperbole and dangerous misleading nonsense for Inside Housing to say this and especially in big bold headlines that also misread and misquote Melanie Rees of the CIH too!
Inside Housing is also caught up in the equally dangerous conclusion that this decision is very positive for supported housing when it is not. The U-turn decision is very positive for social landlords but that is a very different issue to saying it is positive for vulnerable residents in supported housing or for supported housing providers such as refuges who invariably are small specialist charitable support services who lease the property from a social landlord and that one refuge is 100% of their business.
I use the example of refuges for explanation here and it equally applies to many other supported housing services to vulnerable residents with other support needs.
Support Providers (Refuges as illustrative)
One little known factor is that the 300 or so UK refuges are run by well over 200 small independent charities and the one or two refuges each small charity runs are their entire business. Women’s Aid is best viewed and without any slight intended as merely a representative lobby for these hundreds of small charities.
Many other supported housing services in for example learning, mental, physical and sensory disability services are the same and they often lease the supported housing building from a housing association or council. When a large part of their necessary overall funding is still at risk, in this case support funding, not only are such services still hugely at risk of survival but if that support funding ceases the entire organisation goes out of business.
I emphasise support funding ceases to describe a particularly offensive trend that has been happening in refuges for many years which is large housing associations have been submitting deliberately low and loss leading tenders in order to take over refuges. The business logic is large housing associations get the very specific expertise refuge staff members have through the TUPE process and thus bring in that expertise to their organisation at the cheapest cost. This is then used to submit ever more lower than cost tender bids in other locations and so the larger and much more commercially focused HAs develop an ever larger supported housing division. There are many problems with this process for the provision of support to supported housing residents.
Large and mostly general needs HAs impose uniformity and formality of service operation that they have developed for general needs housing operations. This severely constrains the support that vulnerable residents actually need so vulnerable residents get a much more inferior support service than they had with the previous small independent provider and even with the exact same staff members delivering that support as these support workers are now constrained from delivering the actual support that they know residents need by the strictures of their new housing association employers.
When the TUPE constraints cease the new HA employer is free to impose new wage and working structures that often sees the very experienced refuge staff teams offered much more inferior wages for continued employment. The new large HA employer cares not if the experienced staff who have the very necessary refuge specific knowledge leave as the large HA employer at least thinks they now know what this is and then employ a much more generic lower cost lower experienced new manager to replace. Of course this means the quality of support delivery reduces and often significantly.
The provision of support in supported housing has reduced markedly over the last decade in terms of quality and effectiveness by the above TUPE process and large HA desire to expand their way of working that I stress again was designed for general needs housing operation and not the very different culture of supported housing. General needs housing is all above bricks and mortar whereas supported housing is, habitually was, and always needs to be about people – person-centred not housing-centred and these two models are chalk and cheese!
All of this TUPE nonsense with its buying-in or specialist expertise on the cheap is facilitated by the unctuous commissioning process that is as superficial as it gets and again reduces quality of service and support to the most vulnerable who reside in supported housing and is often worse than the compulsory competitive tendering regime (CCT) it replaced.
It is just another euphemism for a race to the bottom in terms of cost which is the only thing that matters to local authority commissioners and especially when it comes to discretionary funding which (housing-related) support is – 100% discretionary whether at a refuge, hostel or any other supported housing service.
It means that providers largely tend to want only very low level support services such as the overwhelming majority of sheltered housing is and not the higher support level services of for example a homeless hostel.
The UK supported housing system is dictated by its funding and not by client need and so a service for any vulnerable client group which is 95% funded by HB and 5% support funding is and will be at a much lower risk of closure than a supported housing service with a 50:50 HB to support funding split.
The UK supported housing system is broken, imbalanced and failing and has been failing significantly since at least 2009 when the last Labour government removed the support funding (SP – Supporting People) ring fence and allowed every local authority to use this money for whatever purpose they wanted. It was failing from April 2003 when the Labour government decided the “commissioning model” with local councils deciding what support service got funding or not was the system.
We need a dramatic and radical set of changes to how the support our most vulnerable people receive is paid for and who delivers that support too. Support has a huge preventative agenda in two key areas. Firstly, it empowers the vulnerable individual by promoting independence. Second, and linked, it prevents the vulnerable person being forced to go to very disempowering and hugely more expensive residential care environments. The current system of UK supported housing only incentivises and prioritises very low level supported housing and means vulnerable people with medium or high level support needs are shafted by its funding system.
The universally acknowledged and current UK social care crisis had been largely created by the non-funding and decommissioning of medium or high level support services by every local authority as they seek short-term savings since the ring fence on SP funding was removed and allowed them to do precisely that. The ring fence removal was an unbelievably idiotic decision by the last Labour government that through its inevitable consequences means the most vulnerable in support terms have been well and truly shafted by this perverse and failing system.
What is equally perverse is that the Audit Commission proved without any doubt whatsoever that every £1 spent of preventative support saved much more than that in many other taxpayer / public sector cost. An average of £2.80 per £1 invested is the often used figure in low level supported housing yet this varies across each supported client group and for example it is regularly stated and accepted that every £1 invested in domestic abuse support provision saves around £13 in other costs.
This is why having local authorities holding the budget cannot work (outside of putting support on the same statutory funding basis as care and which would work) as every LA has to balance the books on an immediate year by year basis and that stricture prevents any form of discretionary funding like support from working in any practical terms. The LA commissioning model is a cliff edge system which is binary and reduces to being funded or not and with no appeal available against any decision. The care funding system by contrast is statutory and does have the appeal mechanism and a legal one with a canon of legal precedence over decades that prevents cliff edge (and 100% subjective decisions) being taken by LA commissioners as we also find with discretionary support funding.
The current system is also hugely imbalanced and its housing funding element was written into regulation to specifically exclude the private sector and that needs to change too.
That will be seen as very controversial by those within supported housing and general needs housing and even by those who know me well and the work I have done in 25 years in this field (my SPeye Joe blogging persona is Joe keeping an eye on SP) yet it needs to happen.
Those who remember the Supporting People programme the great in theory but bloody awful in practice policy as it was often labelled that dictated supported housing from 2000 saw many very good private sector providers of support. The only case that went to the higher UK courts of the entire SP period was a bloody good support provider called Supportways who were private sector and delivered specialised and high quality housing-related support to mentally-disordered offenders and often straight from institutional release.
The LA (Hampshire) decided they only provided generic low level support (!!!!!!!!!!!) which was the merit basis of the legal case when the facts were the total opposite (and note the first few years of SP up until the first “review” did have some legal protection for the providers.) The LA thinking it had the power to do what the hell it wanted pulled the plug on this £300k pa support service after completing a claimed “review” but then had to spend millions in defending that decision at the High Court in which it was found the “review” was a sham, and then further costs in the Court of Appeal arguing against the remedy the High Court had given which was to go back and do it again properly and the only logical remedy.
Another private sector support service was the dispersed asylum seeker programme in the North West that saw much better quality accommodation, much better quality of support and all at a much cheaper cost was done by private providers and not social landlords. I headed up that service for the LA involved and was also the consultant in the Supportways case so I have personal direct knowledge of them but also I know of a great many privately run support services that are better in terms of quality and cost than many social sector services. I also know of privately run support or asylum services that were frankly dire and rightly lost funding. I can equally say there are many dire services run by the public sector and by housing associations too: I am merely saying the issue is not a binary one of public good and private bad and, with the right safeguards being in place very good and even better than that services can be operated irrespective of whether the service is the private sector or public sector.
ALL that matters is the service is good and that the most vulnerable in terms of support get the best supported housing. That is THE most important matter and it follows like night follows day that getting it right first time saves a lot of money as it does in any other field.
In summary, the UK supported housing system needs a rocket up its backside and urgent radical change is needed. Myths and shibboleths however long held and however forcefully and repeated perpetuated such as private bad, public good have to go and the many hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who are already in supported housing deserve much better … and so do the many hundreds of thousands who are wallowing in general needs housing and whose support needs are chronically unmet and not even recorded by the chronically inept system we now have.
I make one final comment to say that over the past five years when I have donated much of my time freely to helping social tenants in general needs housing that the level of unmet support need in general needs housing is greater in number than all those who do reside in UK supported housing. For every 1 person in supported housing in the UK there are at least 2 who languish unsupported in general needs social housing who are being neglected and forgotten about. The real level of housing-related support need is triple what is currently being provided and it is growing year on year as austerity measures really begin to kick in.
We have a major crisis of support need and a supported housing system that is decidedly unfit for purpose and failing by the day and only concerns itself with the immediate fire-fighting that becomes known. Vulnerable people deserve at least three times more and ten times better than what the UK supported housing sector now delivers.