Future Funding for Supported Housing
Due to time constrains I had to shorten my comments, below is the full speech I had hoped to make during the debate.
I would like to thank North Star Housing Group and their Chief Executive Angela Lockwood who provide specialist and supported housing within my constituency.
They have underlined the difficulty they and other providers in the specialist and supported housing sector are experiencing due to the uncertainty caused by the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement when he announced that housing benefit in the social sector will be capped at the relevant local housing allowance.
The Minister will now be aware of the impact of this statement which has caused immense uncertainty and put at risk vital supported and specialist housing for some of the most vulnerable people in our society, such as the elderly, the homeless, those living with mental illness or learning disabilities, and women fleeing domestic violence.
I would be appalled if this was a considered policy decision brought forward in the knowledge of the impact it would have on supported and specialist housing.
For this reason, I hope the Chancellor would acknowledge his error of proposing a policy without consultation, evidence or an impact assessment and correct his mistake through exempting supported housing from these cuts.
We need urgent action as the Chancellor’s statement is already having an impact.
The building of thousands of vital supported homes are already being delayed or scrapped due to the uncertainty caused by the Chancellor.
If pursued, the National Housing Federation have stated that 82,000 specialist homes would become unviable, which is 41% of this type of housing.
A recent survey by Inside Housing revealed that 95% of supported housing providers have stated they would have to close at least some of their schemes, with one in four stating they would have to close all their supported housing.
The extent of these figures is worrying, particularly in my area, where there are 6450 supported and specialist units across County Durham supporting a range of people from the elderly, those with mental, physical and learning disabilities who are able to maintain their independence, people recovering from substance abuse trying to rebuild their lives, or women fleeing from domestic violence.
The short term financial savings the Government are hoping to achieve will quickly evaporate, as supported and specialist housing helps to reduce crime and eases pressure on already overstretched health and social care services.
Rather than adding to the deficit, the Homes and Communities Agency has found that investment in supported housing saves the taxpayer £640 million annually.
This has been one of the failures of the Government’s deficit reduction programme which is solely focused on short term cuts.
A little forethought and cross-departmental co-operation between the Home Office, Health and Communities and Local Government and we could be discussing how extending investment within supported housing could be a positive deficit reduction measure that would improve the lives of people accessing these facilities as well as easing pressure on vital public services we all rely on from the police, NHS to local government.
However, the agenda the Government wants to pursue is cuts, irrespective of their wider costs, either to the deficit or to the health and well-being of the individual.
Even on these crude measures, supported and specialist housing have already shouldered a considerable burden with the National Audit Office finding that between 2011-15 funding for housing related support decreased by 45%.
The sector is at a tipping point and further cuts will simply make these much needed services unviable.
I am particularly concerned as in my constituency we risk losing the only Women’s Refuge within East Durham, at a time when we need spaces in such units expanding rather than being lost.
The Women’s Refuge in my constituency is a new facility consisting of seven units. It was built with the support of a government grant, meaning that a short term housing benefit cut risks undermining previous government investment.
The scheme is very modern being only eight years old, it is well used, always full and oversubscribed. Again, based on the success of this scheme, I would have hoped that the government would be examining ways to replicate successful services to support more women and children fleeing domestic violence.
The rent is £245.81, this includes essential service charges and all running costs for communal areas, such as the children’s playroom, all security costs, which the Minister will acknowledge is vital for such services, as well as everyday expenses such as heating and lighting, cleaning, water rates and laundry facilities.
The Local Housing Allowance rate is extremely low in East Durham, just £97.81 for two bedroom accommodation. The annual deficit for this facility would be £46,176 rendering it unviable.
I imagine this problem will be mirrored in many areas where the housing market leads to a low local housing allowance rate, meaning vital services such as women’s refuges will not be able to operate in such areas.
There are no alternatives if this scheme closes.
The government would be forcing women and children to remain in abusive and violent households, resulting in a greater demand on emergency NHS services and police. I cannot calculate the human costs to the health and wellbeing of an individual forced to remain in such circumstances and at a time when two women a week, one every three days is killed by a former or current partner, I simply cannot believe the government would want to potentially cut off their only escape route from a violent and dangerous partner.
Not only will this policy cause immense harm and suffering to some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, but moving people from cost-effective supported accommodation into more expensive health and social care settings will result in additional costs for the taxpayer and place greater strain on public services already operating at breaking point.
I understand the Discretionary Housing Fund has been highlighted as one way to make up the short-fall.
However, this is a totally unsuitable funding mechanism for specialised housing schemes.
What is needed is certainty and the ability to plan and manage services which cannot be achieved if there is a question mark over whether an individual will or will not be funded.
The Discretionary Housing Fund is already over-subscribed and housing providers cannot rehouse vulnerable people not knowing from one six month period to the next if their rent will be covered.
As we have seen with the bedroom tax, Discretionary Housing payments do not provide a long term solution, with less than 25% of people hit by the bedroom tax receiving support.
The government have made available an additional £70 million in 2018, however, how does the Minister know if this figure will be sufficient.
Ignoring the fact that supported and specialist housing providers have stated they cannot operate using this funding model, the government have no idea or basic information regarding the number of people in supported housing in receipt of housing benefit.
I am pleased that research is now being conducted but despite commencing in December 2014, the completion of this research has been delayed.
Can the Minister give any indication when this research will be completed?
I hope the Minister can acknowledge that it is not acceptable to announce a policy without the most basic information on costs and the numbers affected.
The evidence individual members have been receiving has been overwhelming and I hope we can arrive at a sensible decision to ensure these vital supported and specialist housing services are not only exempted from the Local Housing Allowance but are supported in a way that they can reach more people in need.
We need this issue addressing as a matter of urgency, projects are being delayed or scrapped and there are contracts up for renewal for the commissioning of support services which cannot proceed while uncertainty remains.
I am not immune to the Minister’s need to tackle the rising cost of housing benefit, and while we share the same aim to reduce these costs, we fundamentally disagree on how it should be achieved.
I am perplexed as to the reasons why the government solution is always to penalise and punish the poorest and most vulnerable in society, while doing nothing to address the underlying causes.
The rising cost of housing benefit is a result of escalating housing costs driven by ever increasing private sector rents, and the lack of any alternative as successive governments have sold off and failed to build and replace affordable social housing to rent.
We will not address the housing crisis by penalising the vulnerable or cutting funding for supported and specialist housing.
The simple way out of the crisis is to build, but, build properties over all types of tenures, not just starter homes at costs which are out of reach to many.
We need to build homes which are affordable to buy but also social housing with affordable rents, on a scale we have not seen for over half a century.
While the government continue to tinker at the edges of the housing crisis, which is leading to ever increasing housing benefit costs, we always run the risk of ill-conceived and dangerous policies such as the bedroom tax and now the attack on supported and specialised housing services.
I hope on this occasion the Minister will see the error of his ways, or should it be the error by the Chancellor, and will correct this mistake by ensuring supported and specialised housing providers are exempted from housing benefit cuts, and are supported in providing the vital services which we need in all constituencies across the country.