Supported housing provides a vital lifeline for 700,000 people across Britain. It enables older people, disabled people and others with a wide range of support needs, including survivors of domestic abuse, to live independently with dignity and a quality of life which they would otherwise struggle to achieve.
Over the past 18 months, the supported housing sector has been one of the less high-profile casualties of both David Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity regime and Theresa May’s coalition of chaos.
The Tories announced in 2016 that the local housing allowance (LHA) cap would apply to all types of homes, including supported housing.
The cap on the LHA is a very harsh measure which, according to the National Audit Office, is also one of the biggest contributors to the huge increase in homelessness, particularly for people living in the private rented sector, as it means the allowance does not keep pace with rising rents.
The impact of this announcement for the supported housing sector was catastrophic, resulting in 85 per cent of new schemes being put on hold and many supported housing providers considering leaving the sector altogether. This, in a sector which faces an acute shortage despite saving the state an estimated £3.5bn a year.
Supported housing residents do not always have the loudest voices and it is therefore Labour’s responsibility to speak for their needs and concerns. That is why, last year, I proposed and then co-chaired a joint inquiry of the communities and local government and work and pensions select committees to look at the future of supported housing in the light of the government’s damaging announcement.
I am proud that the committee enabled several residents of supported housing to give evidence to the inquiry, including the first person with Down’s Syndrome to do so. Their evidence about the value of supported housing in their lives was particularly powerful.
The inquiry gathered evidence which showed unequivocally that the government’s proposed approach to supported housing does not work either for current provision or future supply. I am pleased that the inquiry made a difference and, as a result of our report, the government has acknowledged that its approach to funding was wrong and performed a u-turn. But our scrutiny must not stop there.
The inquiry showed that the LHA, calculated based on private sector rents in any given area, was simply the wrong starting point for the funding of supported housing, since the costs of providing this accommodation were driven by an entirely unrelated set of factors to do with staffing and the provision of specialist buildings.
We also looked in detail at the provision of domestic abuse refuges, noting that a shocking 17 per cent of refuges have closed since 2017, the growing patchiness of provision across the country and the inadequacy of current funding arrangements.
This week, we have seen the government’s detailed response. There are certainly aspects to be welcomed, in particular the decision to designate a new “sheltered rent” for housing for older people. If this is well devised it will mean that the welfare system will cover the costs of providing sheltered accommodation for those who need support with their rent, and give some more certainty to providers of sheltered housing to invest in new schemes. But there are significant disappointments and concerns too.
I am deeply concerned that the government chose to ignore the inquiry’s recommendation, supported by Women’s Aid, to create a national network and commissioning framework for domestic abuse refuges. Refuges are distinct from any other form of supported housing, in that often the survivors of abuse need to access provision outside their own local authority area in order to be safe. Establishing a national network is therefore the only means to guarantee even provision and guard against the further erosion of local services.
It is very disappointing that the government did not take up the inquiry’s recommendation to commit more grant funding to supported housing. This proposal was driven by the urgent need to address the shortfall in provision, which has been made materially worse by the chaos the government has created over last year.
I am also very worried that the government’s approach places too much pressure on local councils at a time when their finances have already been cut to the bone. The announcement implies significant new burdens for councils who will be responsible for registering and monitoring the quality of supported housing and that all “short term” supported housing is funded by councils.
The government’s track record on funding new burdens to councils, demonstrated in its entirely inadequate response to the Homelessness Reduction Act, is very poor. With the Tories still committed to a failing austerity agenda, I have little confidence in their willingness to step up with the resources our councils really need, and we may yet see some supported housing at risk of closure as a consequence.
The government’s U-turn is a victory for effective cross-party select committee work and a victory for Labour opposition to an approach which was damaging, chaotic and lacked any basis in evidence. But this issue sits in the wider context of a national housing crisis which the government is quite simply failing to address. There is much more to do to hold the Tories to account and to articulate a different vision in which the housing needs of vulnerable people are met alongside the urgent need for genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy and a properly regulated private rented sector.
Helen Hayes is MP for Dulwich and West Norwood.