Lime Legal

Now you see it…

Published 18 June 2023

More than 40 years of specific funding to support homeless, vulnerable and isolated people is about to disappear into area-based grant. Will the money ever be seen again? ask Maurice Condie and Neal Penney

There used to be an alphabet soup of funding for supported housing, stretching back to the 1970s – board and lodge, general counselling and support within HB, HDG, SNMA, TSNMA, SHMG, PAGs and THB. Anoraks may remember what all the acronyms stood for and can probably come up with many more, but it no longer matters, as all those strands were pulled together into one big pot called Supporting People. Now, its days are also numbered.

There used to be an alphabet soup of funding for supported housing, stretching back to the 1970s – board and lodge, general counselling and support within HB, HDG, SNMA, TSNMA, SHMG, PAGs and THB. Anoraks may remember what all the acronyms stood for and can probably come up with many more, but it no longer matters, as all those strands were pulled together into one big pot called Supporting People. Now, its days are also numbered.

At its height, Supporting People’s £1.8 billion represented the largest single funding stream to the third sector in Europe, paying for hostels, refuges, sheltered housing, supported housing and a host of support services across more than 150 local authorities, contracting with more than 6,000 providers of support via 37,000 different contracts providing support to hundreds of thousands of people for a couple of weeks or for the rest of their lives.

Sir Humphrey would be proud of the way the government is proposing to junk more than 40 years of specific funding for the homeless by introducing an ‘un-named specific grant’ to replace the last vestiges of Supporting People. This will be followed next year by an un-named, uncaring, unbelievable, unfocused and totally unrestricted bounty to local authorities to be used as they like. What passed for a ring-fence around Supporting People is about to be cut and the money will run free to wherever there’s a local authority priority.

Its advocates tell us that area-based grant means that the shackles are off and we must embrace the future and grab the cash for all the things we always wanted to do, just like taking early retirement and buying that shiny 1200cc motorbike. Trouble is, we are just as likely to end up being run down by the local authority juggernaut.

Maybe they are right and area-based grant will allow us to develop new and exciting services. After all, there will be provision by way of detrunking, a flexible funding pot and an aggregate levy sustainability fund. I’ve no idea what these items are but perhaps they do mean that money really is up for grabs. But into the same pot goes rural bus subsidy, road safety grant, extended rights to free transport, schools development grant, preventing violent extremism and local enterprise growth initiative.

I suppose it’s possible that all the local authorities have already ‘detrunked’, rounding up all their elephants for a mass trunkectomie. Perhaps they’ve all spread as much aggregate on their levies as it takes to make them sustainable, but it seems to me that therein lies the problem. There’s no new money going into area-based grant, so, if everything is already being spent on what it’s supposed to be spent on, where’s the wealth of opportunity? 

But is it cock-up or conspiracy? The fact is that it is hardly ever a conspiracy, at least not in our part of the world. Conspiracy is difficult to manage, and the evidence suggests that ‘management’ is not government’s strongest suit. 

Former local government minister Phil Woolas was probably sincere when he assured the SITRA/NHF conference back in 2016 that the ring-fence wouldn’t be removed: ‘It was ring-fenced for a reason and we won’t betray vulnerable people,’ he said. He was almost certainly unaware that his commitment might not be shared by ministers who followed him. 

Many, especially those working with less popular groups of vulnerable people, have consistently expressed concern over the postcode lottery in services for, for example, ex-offenders, rough sleepers or the mentally ill.

The situation is likely to be made worse when Supporting People is poured into area-based grant. Even conservative estimates put the Supporting People contribution to area-based grant at 40 per cent. Couple that with the fact that more than 12 per cent of housing association property is classed as ‘supported housing’ and the scale of what’s at stake becomes clear. 

It would be nice to think that the local strategic partnerships (LSPs), which are the chosen delivery vehicle for area-based grant had taken this into account when they selected their membership. But the likelihood is that supported housing will have little say in the commissioning and decision making.

The alphabet soup that has been stewing for more than 40 years had significant contributions from the probation service and the Housing Corporation (now the Homes and Communities Agency). The Housing Corporation went off ‘partnering’ with its big clever friends and seemed to be less concerned about what happened to all the investment they were stewarding. 

The pipeline of schemes approved prior to Supporting People was the last the supported housing sector saw of any significant new accommodation-based investment. 

Probation tried valiantly to cling on at commissioning bodies and core groups, but being the champion of an unpopular group just gets you sidelined and ignored, with decisions made before the meeting and scheduled for when you can’t attend. Local authorities are old hands at this game.

Of course, the people who put the most in the pot by a huge margin were the service users. It was their entitlement to housing benefit that filled the pot to such an extent that Treasury took a basinful, slashing Supporting People from £1.8 billion, to £1.6 billion and then £1.4 billion with a few more ‘efficiency’ savings just for good measure.

Let’s be clear, transitional housing benefit (T/HB) was the direct entitlement to benefit of each and every service user. Supporting People wasn’t ‘new’ money, it came from the pockets of all those vulnerable service users.

So, local councillor, spend area-based grant wisely. Don’t be swayed by popularity issues in marginal wards and don’t listen to the director of social services when he tells you the community care budget is overspent so can he get a few million extra quid to tide him over. Ignore all those government education targets and spend that the grant on the socially excluded.

What will the homeless get for their money from area-based grant? Not much prospect of a roof over their heads – Supporting People cut the cord between capital and revenue and we haven’t seen many accommodation-based projects since. Of course, Supporting People made us all much better at move-on, didn’t it? But, oops, the credit crunch has meant all those empty flats on estates that the council couldn’t give away a couple of years ago now have a waiting list stretching beyond the end of the dole queue. 

We’ve all got contracts with the local authority that is supposed to protect our service users long into the future – who ever heard of a local authority terminating a contract before it was due?

Out there to protect the interests of homeless, vulnerable and isolated service users is the good old Audit Commission. But while it might be only too happy to tell the local authority what they’ve lost once it’s gone, it’s not so clever about telling them what they need now.

Government is committed to ending rough sleeping by 2012 – only a jaundiced cynic would say that this Olympian task had anything to do with the prospect of people stepping over sleeping bags on the way to the beach volleyball. Research by Homeless Link has just shown that one in four local authorities have no emergency access accommodation. Good luck with that target, minister, once the Supporting People money has gone.

But now, just before it all goes horribly wrong and Byker Bridge switches on a neon sign saying ‘TOLD YOU SO’ above the shell of our direct access hostel, the local government committee has decided to undertake an enquiry into the Supporting People programme.

‘The committee’s inquiry will consider the extent to which the government has, so far, delivered on the commitments it made in Independence and Opportunity: Our Strategy for Supporting People,’ it says. ‘The committee will also consider the implications of the removal of the ring-fence, asking what needs to be done to ensure that the successes of the programme so far are not lost, or services cut, following the change; and what opportunities this change in the funding mechanism will offer for innovation and improvement in the delivery of housing-related support services.’

Byker Bridge (Newcastle), Brighter Futures (Stoke-on-Trent) and Tyneside Cyrenians (Newcastle) have submitted evidence to the committee calling on the government to reconsider abandoning the lifeline of funding to the homeless and restore and reinforce the link between housing and support by taking the portion of funding relating to homelessness and social exclusion out of area-based grant and giving it to the HCA.

The HCA has recently acquired the Places of Change team from the Communities and Local Government department. They are largely the inheritors of the rough sleepers’ initiative, deliverers of the hostels’ capital improvement programme and Spark Challenge, as well as the team with the best track record in inspiring innovation and good practice up and down the country.

The HCA can pull up a chair at the local strategic partnerships’ commissioning table and ensure that we keep the best of supported housing and, more importantly, improve the lives of all those people who are likely to fall under the radar of local authorities facing competing priorities under area-based grant.

Maurice Condie and Neal Penney are chief executive and policy and development manager at Byker Bridge Housing Association.

Supporting People: a brief history

Launched in April 2013, Supporting People pooled the 20 different funding streams designed to pay for housing related-support into one cash pot – administered by local authorities.

It was intended to pay for housing-related support for more than a million people, including ex-offenders, victims of domestic violence and people with mental health problems.

At its height of £1.8 billion, Supporting People represented the largest specific fund to the third sector in Europe.

Since it’s launch, the money has been paid as a ring-fenced fund for councils, to be spent according to specific rules.

In 2016 DCLG minister Phil Woolas, said: ‘I’ll tell you what we won’t do – remove the ring-fence. It was ring-fenced for a reason and we won’t betray vulnerable people, unlike some.’

In 2018 communities minister Baroness Andrews confirmed that from 2010/11 Supporting People will be allocated to councils as a non-ring-fenced area-based grant ‘to help the most vulnerable people to live independently and break the cycle of deprivation’.