The Centre for the New Midlands has just responded to the Levelling Up Select Committee Inquiry into exempt accommodation. This appeal for evidence was ordered after strenuous lobbying from a wide range of stakeholders including – importantly – from every part of the political spectrum. Whilst we welcome the learning that will result from the Inquiry, we believe there is already substantial research evidence highlighting the need for reform, and feel it is vital that this opportunity for significant legislative and regulatory change is not lost.
The government has periodically considered reform of what is known as ‘exempt accommodation’ since 2011. The most recent proposals were roundly rejected by the sector during consultation in 2017/18, largely due to the impacts on attracting new-build supply and concerns over non-ringfenced funds left to be administered by local authorities – the scars remained from the removal of the Supporting People ringfence in 2009. However, this time it feels different, with even the more voracious opponents of the last proposals, such as the National Housing Federation and others, actively calling for change.
Nonetheless, and despite the proliferation of non-commissioned exempt accommodation in our region (which is often dubbed the “epicentre” of a national problem); it remains a relatively unknown – and complex – area of regulation, policy, and practice. In fact, ‘exempt accommodation’ covers the whole gamut of supported housing types. Our focus is specifically on shared residential units that are not commissioned under Local Authority Homelessness or Social Care Funding, or under Specialised Supported Housing (SSH) arrangements, and which utilise the ‘exempt’ provisions of current Housing Benefit and Universal Credit Regulations. This style of accommodation operates, at least ostensibly, on a short-term or transitional basis, accommodating a wide cross-section of often multiply excluded and disadvantaged groups. This accommodation is not ‘new build’ supply but utilises, and in many cases converts, existing buildings and homes into multiply occupied schemes. In the Midlands, this provision falls primarily under the governance of ‘lease-based’ Registered Providers of Social Housing
FOI information published by Crisis revealed that 153,701 households in Great Britain were housed in exempt accommodation as of May 2021. This represents a 62% increase from 2016. Birmingham alone has over 21,000 bed spaces of exempt accommodation, a rise from just over 14,000 in 2019. It is estimated that £816m has been spent on exempt accommodation in the last financial year alone, and the spend on exempt accommodation has risen by over £110m between 2018-19 and 2020-21
The exponential rise in this type of accommodation is causing considerable concern in the West Midlands, and there is also growing evidence that the model is becoming increasingly common in many areas of the country, although alarmingly this is not always recognised at an early stage; mistakenly but understandably considered as ‘HMO accommodation’.
Whilst distinctions are important if we are to avoid throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, it is not the nuances of supported housing policy that are the key to our concerns, but the lives of the many thousands of individuals who are currently adversely affected by this growing sub sector. It is a sub-sector suffering from what my colleague Thea Raisbeck, in her ground-breaking report “Exempt from Responsibility”, termed an “accountability deficit”: largely unregulated accommodation and support for some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Whilst the Inquiry terms of reference are rightly broad yet specific, for our region, it is important to highlight additional, although largely unintended, consequences of the rise in non-commissioned exempt accommodation. This includes the loss of family homes to conversions into non-commissioned exempt accommodation. In Birmingham alone it is estimated that over 4,000 family homes have been ‘lost’ to exempt accommodation since 2014, in a city with over 3,000 households currently trapped in temporary accommodation.
This is compounded by the fact that we have built a mere 3,272 affordable homes in the West Midlands in 2019/20, with similar numbers in the preceding years. This deficit has led to exempt accommodation often being the only housing pathway available for many who would traditionally have accessed social housing. This has, in turn, impacted on people’s ability to work due to prohibitively high exempt accommodation rents, which create a significant ‘benefit trap’.
These contexts highlight that the growth of exempt accommodation, has not occurred in a vacuum. Over recent years the combination of unmet need, low Local Housing Allowance levels (particularly for single people), inadequate social housing supply and an absence of explicit funding for housing related support has, in some areas, led to an unacceptable but predictable ‘market response’ from less scrupulous providers. This has resulted in poor quality accommodation with little or no support, risky mixes of vulnerable residents, which has had a significant impact in many local communities. Such factors have been further exacerbated by heavily outdated Housing Benefit regulations (1996 to be precise – even I was young then!), making it extremely difficult for councils to manage quality and supply.
Despite all of this, we know there is excellent provision of exempt supported accommodation which meets the needs of vulnerable residents by providing high quality, communal accommodation with both intensive housing management and personalised support. Our concerns centre around the growth of parts of the sector which are failing to meet the needs of their residents. It is important that these needs are identified, and that appropriate, high quality supported accommodation is provided to meet them. Such a strategy underpins the health and social care system by sustaining and promoting independent living within the community. When done well, this offers significant savings to health and social care budgets. However, the gaps in the current system allow too wide a range of quality and assurance.
It is important to be clear about what ‘success’ would look like as a result of the government Inquiry. Unusually, we are not asking for new money to make this happen. Out of the £816 million annual spend on exempt accommodation, we believe a percentage of the core rent could be recycled by the DWP and given to key stakeholders to achieve greater controls and oversight. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that there could be savings to the Treasury in a relatively short space of time.
Below is what we believe will make a lasting difference:
What Success looks like
- Alignment of existing planning and HMO licencing powers to capture supported housing provision. Remove the exemption for Registered Providers from the definition of an HMO in the Housing Act 2004, to enable licensing and planning powers such as Article 4.
- Government-backed national accreditation requirement for providers of short-term supported housing, with additional regulation to enforce this.
- Strengthened definitions within current regulations relating to the level of provision of care, support, and supervision. The current Supported Housing Benefit Regulations have largely been untouched since 1996.
- A reappraisal of the justification in Housing Benefit Regulations for the different subsidy rules for Registered and non-registered providers
- Consideration of the scale of provision and ratios of support workers to vulnerable residents they are supporting, and for the source of funding for support to be transparent.
- Strengthen the role of the Regulator for Social Housing so that they can monitor compliance against specific consumer standards for RPs in this sector.
- Strengthen the role of non-RP regulators, including within the Charity Sector, to ensure proper oversight of quality is in place.
- Protocols put in place for statutory referring agencies into Exempt Accommodation to create greater consistency and accountability for out of area placements.
- Greater enforcement powers to tackle providers who do not effectively manage ASB, including additional Community Safety powers.
- The Charter of Rights for residents, commissioned by Birmingham City Council, should be rolled out nationally, and further effort should be put into a similar venture for local communities in which there are high concentrations of exempt accommodation.
- A review of the current funding model for locally delivered supported housing – incorporating funding for support to vulnerable tenants and resources for Local Authorities to enable any new duties and responsibilities concerning regulation, planning, and commissioning to be carried out effectively.
- Oversight of the provision and development of supported housing to be within the remit of Local Housing Authorities, based on a duty to assess the local need for supported housing and development of a supported housing strategy, which meets local need and includes those who cannot remain in their local areas, for example refuge provision. This would allow local authorities to have greater tools, authority, and ability to control provision and growth, based on their own strategic needs assessment. These would mark a substantial step change in Councils’ ability to stop or restrict growth based on market saturation or oversupply.
What Failure looks like
Additional guidance to local authorities and specifically, revenues and benefits teams, on how to assess claims. This would in effect merely create additional burden on Local Authorities and represent another missed opportunity for meaningful reform.
This is huge opportunity to get a better deal for people that have been marginalised for too long. Let’s make sure that we give the government a real opportunity to meet their ‘levelling up’ commitments for some of our most vulnerable citizens.
 Calculations based on responses from 52 authorities to FOI requests by Prospect Housing: https://www.campbelltickell.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/PRO_Lesson-Learnt-report_October2021_FV.pdf