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Blog 13 November 2017 l Housing

Speak up for supported housing

Each week Inside Housing publishes the thoughts of industry leaders around the big issues that matter most to the housing world. In its blog published on 7 November 2017, regular contributor Dame Clare Tickell looked at the how the sector must respond to the supported housing funding consultation.

Speak up for supported housing

Most days I travel from Kings Cross Station to our office in Grays Inn Road which is just a five minute walk. Each time I find myself navigating my way through homeless people huddled in sleeping bags, very obviously mentally distressed people shouting and sometimes fighting and, increasingly in recent months, the motionless casualties of the spice epidemic. Many of these are older men and women who look physically frail and in need of care.

It is therefore a relief to see the importance that supported and sheltered housing has within the wider health and social care continuum fully acknowledged in the introduction to the consultation document published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) last week. Following two years of uncertainty and paralysis, we have movement at last.

After a slow start in terms of attracting interest within and outside the immediate housing sector, the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap proposals did cut through into the mainstream media. Senior politicians, policymakers and other key influencers have talked about the importance of what we do.

For a brief moment in time we are not just the preserve of a junior minister or Parliamentary Under Secretary of State. No lesser person than the Prime Minister chose to make the announcement about our future funding arrangements.

It would be wonderful if the reason for this was that everyone had suddenly woken up to the importance of housing with support, and the vital part that it plays in reducing costs across the wider system, maintaining and improving the wellbeing of individuals and communities, keeping people safe and supported and protecting some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Realistically, it is much more likely to have been about the art of the possible. It would have been very difficult to steer the legislation through Parliament at the moment - the recent Westminster Hall debate initiated by Peter Aldous (MP for Waveney) was a standing room only event which attracted huge interest and cross party support, and it seems most likely that the climb-down was about arithmetic and politics, pure and simple.

The government have been very clear that they have concerns about the costs of supported and sheltered housing. In her statement on the 25 October, Prime Minster Theresa May said: “We need to look at issues such as significant increases in service charges that have taken place recently, making sure that we are looking at cost control in the sector.”

John Healey, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for housing, rightly anticipated that the devil might be in the detail. We must therefore engage fully with this consultation so that unintended and foreseeable consequences to tenants in need are avoided.

The housing benefit bill has risen steeply in recent years. No coincidence given the sharp reduction in related budgets which have affected supporting people funding, grants and other support. While I haven’t seen this calculation explicitly, I would wager that the total amount going into supported and sheltered housing has either remained broadly the same or reduced but the detail of who is paying and under what budget has shifted.

As a demand-led, centrally administered budget line, housing benefit has undoubtedly picked up some of the slack and this is what the government set out to change. The music stopped and the DWP were the ones left holding the budget, but it could have been another department if the timing had been different.

The risks around the affordability of high quality homes for vulnerable people has therefore not gone away. For older people, recent suggestions that the triple lock commitment on pensions, for example, may be picked up as part of this year’s Autumn Budget would reduce already modest and fixed incomes at a time of rising prices.

The LHA cap proposals posed a genuine existential threat to the wider sector and sub-sectors within it. The consultation paper has significantly moved away from these and for that reason it is to be welcomed.

Our challenge now is to maintain the head of steam that has been built up while the threat was so real as the debate becomes more nuanced and technical. The concerns expressed by providers of short-term accommodation, in particular, must be understood and responded to. Further, how might we keep the wider influencers who have been championing these issues engaged going forwards?

The ongoing debate needs to be framed as part of the debate on how to increase housing supply, the future of social care and the future of older people’s housing. These are three examples of where this debate must take place and where the links need to be continually made. Crucially also, the consultation needs to hear from all those local politicians and councils who have engaged on the issue up to now.  

We must do all we can to make sure that the momentum gained is not squandered.