In November we published our latest report on Exempt Accommodation ‘Exempt from Responsibility?’ and held two lively and oversubscribed launch events in Birmingham and London. Producing and disseminating a research report on such a relatively unknown and often un-heard of area of regulation, policy and practice is not without is challenges, but we have been supported brilliantly throughout by our friends at Commonweal and the University of Birmingham.

I know for the author of our report, and for ourselves, articulating the relatively ‘hidden’ social injustices within a complex and sometimes poorly understood set of circumstances; that straddle the realms of homelessness, housing, welfare benefits and Safeguarding, has been a delicate and onerous task. Those who work within the non-commissioned exempt sector, or are practised in the intricacies of benefit regulation, housing and homelessness policy, will perhaps best understand how creating simplicity from such complexity is a deceptively difficult task. Nonetheless, we were keen to ensure the social injustices we had evidenced within the sector were presented in way that chimed with a wider audience; beyond those for whom terms like ‘exempt accommodation’; ‘housing benefit subsidy’ and ‘lease-based providers’ are readily familiar concepts. For it is not the specialist terminology or the nuances of housing policy that are the key to our work; but the lives of the many thousands of vulnerable individuals who are currently adversely affected by the non-commissioned exempt sector.

I think it is safe to say that we have achieved our aim of alerting a wider audience to some of the more problematic elements of exempt accommodation, and the report has certainly had an impact. I’m not sure we would have personally chosen all of the themes that have been drawn out by the print media. However, this possibly demonstrates on a smaller level the challenges we have faced throughout: how to grapple with the intricacies of a very technical and complex area whilst trying to create a narrative that best impacts upon your intended audience.

Nonetheless, we have to be pleased that there is now increased dialogue around this issue; within multiple forums and across a range of platforms. This has not always been the case in the many years we have been discussing this issue; both as individual professionals and as an organisation.

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Traditionally, society has attributed the causes of homelessness to individual failing or personal crisis; be that alcohol and drug dependency, mental health issues or a failure to ‘sustain’ accommodation. This is no longer always the case, and I think our report really highlights the myriad of issues that have contributed to our current situation, which has left people with no other option but to turn to an under-regulated, often under-equipped and sometimes dangerous form of provision. From LHA rates remaining static in the private rented sector; statutory budget cuts to many services, and perhaps most importantly the lack of truly affordable homes being built, has meant that as well as those with high and multiple needs, many people that would never have ordinarily accessed exempt accommodation have no other option.

It is also important to remember that we now live in a country where most people in poverty are in work. Millions of people have to earn their poverty, and millions of people can’t obtain an affordable or decent home.  This has helped create a market such as we see in Birmingham, where exempt accommodation feels like ‘the only game in town’ for those who have an urgent housing need but are without adequate social networks or economic independence

What our report highlights is that there are multiple causes of homelessness, and many different routes into exempt accommodation. However, when we as a sector or as a society discuss homelessness – including our Government – we tend to focus on the most visible aspects of homelessness; on dependency issues and the difficulty in ‘ending rough sleeping’. And so, this is where most of the money flows. What perhaps is the most infuriating in all of this is that we know that many of the things that were effective in tackling homelessness, (none more so than by giving people affordable and secure homes,) have been eroded over time. The Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Government have banned the Right to Buy to protect social housing stock for those who need it but in England, we have turbo-charged it, with some Housing Associations as well as councils selling their stock at discounted rates, and not adequately replacing social rented properties despite unprecedented demand. New housing being built by Housing Associations usually takes the form of ‘affordable housing’, with higher rent levels than that of social rents.

The government has invested £1bn to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, and the Homeless Reduction Act is a really ambitious and well-intended piece of legislation. Whilst I don’t think anybody would argue with the principles it contains, the pitiful funding accompanying it means that little has changed in real terms. Arguably, exempt accommodation, where the full rents can be reclaimed from the DWP if you are a housing association or local authority, has become a more interesting and cost-effective proposition for some local authorities; in particular as a housing option for single people, who in many cases would otherwise be placed into expensive temporary accommodation, or into already oversubscribed commissioned hostels.

Before focusing on the recommendations in the report, I really want to note some of the brilliant work that Birmingham City Council are doing, and we know there is similar excellent work in areas such as Hull and Humberside, South Tyneside, and Bristol, as well more locally to us in Wolverhampton. All of these areas have task forces working on improving oversight and standards in exempt housing, within the existing regulations.

Birmingham City Council have been incredibly proactive with little resource. We now have an Exempt Housing Task-force, bringing together colleagues from planning, commissioning, housing, enforcement, police, fire, criminal justice and safeguarding. This group deals with individual issues at property level through a Premises of Concern protocol, to much higher-level activity such as coordinating conversations at council leadership level; mapping existing provision and creating active, collaborative strategies to drive up standards.

Recently, Birmingham City Council hosted an event which brought the biggest non-commissioned exempt providers together, with the aim of encouraging better co-ordination and collaboration. The main focus of the day was around driving up standards in the sector; having a more strategic alignment between local need and supply, and stopping the unchecked growth within the city.

Providers were introduced to a form of co-regulation currently called the ‘Quality Standards’, with many of the Registered Providers already now signed up to introducing this much needed quality assurance tool. The Quality Standards were developed and designed by Changing Futures Together, part of the Birmingham Voluntary Sector Council, in partnership with people with complex and additional needs. This voluntary tier of regulation will be self-financed by the organisations themselves. So, it may feel a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, but that said we know our Birmingham colleagues are really encouraged by both the take up at the event and the genuine interest and commitment to the Standards.

I must also take this opportunity to plug some of our own work as we have been commissioned by Birmingham City Council to co-produce, with residents living in non-commissioned supported accommodation, a ‘Statement of Rights’. The Statement of Rights will be shaped by the experiences of residents and informed by an identifiable ‘journey’ through exempt accommodation; from referrals, to moving in, living with housemates, dealing with problems and moving on. The final piece of work will be available in a variety formats and will set out residents’ expectations for their housing and support.

Thea Raisbeck our project lead on this and colleagues have already met with over 50 people who have lived or are living in exempt accommodation, including young people, people with substance misuse issues, people with mental ill health, complex needs, persistent and ex-offenders, survivors of domestic abuse, and people with a learning disability. The work aims to not to be representative of the entirety of people living in exempt accommodation in Birmingham but to have representation from those groups and populations most often accessing and living in the sector.

I’m cautiously optimistic but I do think there are positive signals from a wide range of stakeholders around the whole issue of exempt accommodation; not least because a range of policy makers, civil servants and (previous) government ministers do ‘get it’. MHCLG have been excellent; they know the issues as well if not better than anyone, but they also know that in this challenging political time, they must choose their battles wisely. I think the recommendations of our report reflect this. Most will remember that it was only a little over a year ago that the supported housing reforms where shelved after huge push back from our own sector. That is why we aren’t asking for major reforms in our report. Instead we are urging the DWP to strengthen the existing regulations of what we mean by care, support and supervision, which we believe would be broadly welcomed by the sector.

We are also encouraged that the social housing regulator is taking an active interest in lease-based providers and the ‘umbrella’ model more widely. This is now part of the social housing sector risk profile; a significant shift from a few years ago, and we know there has been increased engagement on governance and financial viability with a wide range of Registered Provider’s that solely focus on exempt accommodation. We would just encourage more work on the third strand of the Regulator’s priorities: the Consumer Standard or, the ‘people bit’, which the report’s recommendations go into in more detail. We also know that, more widely, the National Housing Federation understands this issue and is in active dialogue with its members, some of whom are the ‘umbrella style’ providers that our report focuses on.

Likewise, the West Midlands Homelessness Task Force, led by the West Midlands Combined Authority Mayor Andy Street, has designated exempt accommodation as a key part of the agenda for tackling homelessness in the region. The Task Force is actively taking on the recommendations of our report in order to lobby and push for change; as are Birmingham City Council. Similarly, the Birmingham Safeguarding Adults Board has put exempt accommodation as one of their top priorities for the coming year. In addition, our brilliant friends at Crisis wholeheartedly endorse and support the recommendations in the report.

So, we know both locally and nationally that there is a real focus on this burgeoning sector but, whilst we highlight the ‘accountability deficits’ and the social injustices within non-commissioned exempt accommodation, it is important to remember that this isn’t about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All within this sector acknowledge that non-commissioned exempt accommodation is a vital tool to support the most vulnerable. We at Spring know we couldn’t run some of our services without exempt accommodation but we also know we sometimes get things wrong for our tenants and residents. Supported housing is not an exact science; it is about people who have often been marginalised to the fringes of society. However, the contrasting levels of care, support and supervision and the inconsistencies in approach and quality within this sector are neither an acceptable nor sustainable situation. Surely, we can do better than this?

We are also not asking for more financial investment to come into the sector. We acknowledge that we have never spent more on homelessness, but we want a shift from crisis to prevention. We also want to shift some of the money so there is greater investment in oversight and rigour. We do not want to continue a system where a homeless person is a £250-pound-a-week commodity to a commercially-minded provider.

In short, we have created recommendations that are realistic and tangible in the short term as well as the long term, and they have been discussed with the people that might have to implement them.

Ultimately, I think it’s important to acknowledge that real progress has been made on a number of fronts. When a few of us started discussing this issue around 5 years ago, it was very difficult to get any meaningful engagement at all. Now, a range of people are taking on the responsibility for improving standards locally, whilst we continue to campaign nationally for better oversight, better standards and increased safety for the thousands of vulnerable adults who live within this sector.

Thanks for reading.

If you would like to read the report you can do so here