In this blog Spring Associate Thea Raisbeck reflects personally on the history, process, findings and impact of the recently completed in-depth research report into non-commissioned, supported exempt accommodation in Birmingham. This report was commissioned by Birmingham Safeguarding Adults Board (BSAB), in collaboration with Spring Housing and the Housing and Communities Research Group (HCRG) at the University of Birmingham.
It began, as these things often do, with that ‘small group of thoughtful, committed citizens’; looking perhaps not to change the world, but at the very least to make sense of a small but in no way insignificant part of it.
Back in early 2017, before I joined Spring and then still a practitioner within the Birmingham branch of the national homelessness charity Crisis, and whilst trying desperately to navigate my clients through an increasingly narrow and seemingly decreasingly safe set of housing options, I met and formed a working group with Dominic and Rachel from Spring and Professor David Mullins from the University of Birmingham. We commenced with little more than a sense; or perhaps a sense of duty, that we needed to ‘do something’ about the non-commissioned ‘exempt’ sub-sector in our City; furnished as we were with few resources beyond our own specialist knowledge and collective will. What we needed to do was at that point probably as loosely-defined at the issues were myriad, but these early meetings became the site of what has since grown into a solid and productive partnership; managing to swerve the inertial curse of the broad-aimed working group; moving beyond the imperative to ‘do’ and now sitting expectantly somewhere within the realms of the ‘doing’.
Birmingham Safeguarding Adults Board (BSAB) are of course a key factor in enabling us as a partnership, as a sector and as a City to achieve our current position: one of motion; of clarity; of rich detail and of solid, evidenced suggestions for a determined and collective way forward. Bolstered by their own concerns around the increased risk of harm to individuals living in the exempt sub-sector and due to the synchronicity between our respective aims, anchored as they are in the safety, dignity and rights of residents, BSAB commissioned Spring and the HCRG to conduct an exploratory piece of work which commenced in January 2018. To explain in detail the background and make up of the non-commissioned exempt sub-sector in Birmingham, and thus what we were facing when this research commenced, and in large part continue to face, is no easy task, but one I hope the final report has gone some way towards achieving. However, this blog will attempt a broad-brush depiction of the issues within the sub-sector; the framework and findings of the research and touch upon our hopes for an answer to the oft-heard mantra subsequent to any keenly anticipated piece of research: So, what next?
‘Exempt accommodation’ is, somewhat confusingly, technically not a form of accommodation at all, but a provision within Housing Benefit and, latterly, Universal Credit Regulations, allowing a claimant to receive enhanced levels of benefit towards their rental costs if they occupy certain types of supported accommodation. Put simply, if an accommodation provider states that they provide a level of ‘care, support or supervision’, which must be ‘more than minimal’, they are able to yield rents far in advance of private rented sector local housing allowance rates or social sector ‘general needs’ rents. On paper and in practice the detail is far more intricate and sometimes baffling than this but the reasoning behind these provisions remains as when devised in 1996: to acknowledge and account for the increased costs of providing certain types of supported scheme.
A lot has changed since 1996; not least the removal of support costs from Housing Benefit through the introduction and subsequent retrenchment of the ‘Supporting People’ programme and the advent of Universal Credit. A lot has changed but these nebulous, twenty-two-year-old Regulations, open to both abuse and to wide interpretation, have remained a constant. There has been acknowledgement, not least at central government level, that these Regulations are at best difficult to administer and at worst allowing unregulated and ineffective provision to spring up seemingly unchecked. A government-commissioned research project in 2010 confirmed the complexity and patchy scrutiny of claims, leading to a consultation in 2011 that changed little, aside from leading, ultimately, to the decision that what were subsequently termed ‘specified exempt’ claims would remain outside of Universal Credit, and outside of some of the more punitive aspects of broad-based welfare reforms, such as the ‘bedroom tax’ and benefit caps. The niggling feeling that all was not well with this form of subsidy, however, remained and formed itself into what those in the sector now look back on with a patchwork of horror, relief and disappointment: the supported housing consultations of 2016-2018. The second of these consultations proposed that all funding for ‘short term’ supported housing, or of two years’ maximum duration, would be removed from the benefits system altogether and devolved to local authorities to administer on a basis more tightly aligned to local need and supply. The reforms were controversial and a more than a minimal (if you’ll excuse the pun) amount of scrutiny and future-thinking revealed some deeply problematic and deleterious ramifications; not least the potential effects on a national, life-saving network of refuge provision; the potential for smaller or less politically popular organisations to fall at the commissioning hurdle or become unsustainable and the halting of an estimated 85% of new supply. Here in Birmingham, and at the risk of accusations of tunnel vision, many of those grappling with the fallout of the current non-commissioned exempt sub-sector, which has grown exponentially to over 10,000 units, saw this as an opportunity for the local authority to regain some semblance of control over a sprawling, largely hidden and at its worst dangerous form of provision. Indeed, the BSAB-commissioned research project was conceived, and largely carried out, under the expectant shadow of these proposed reforms and we were undoubtedly the small, quiet voice in the corner who were disappointed when the government announced a reversal of these proposals in August 2018. The government have, of course, still voiced commitment to the development of a ‘sound and robust oversight regime’ for this type of subsidy and we are now viewing this not as an opportunity lost but as a strengthened imperative for collective commitment to change, and one that now has a wealth of experiential detail and focused recommendations behind it in the shape of the research report. Later, too, will come the government-commissioned research into housing-related support, which will attempt to more thoroughly investigate the links between housing and support and the use and utility of costings currently grouped under a broad and ill-defined rubric of ‘intensive housing management’. This element undoubtedly requires greater scrutiny and it is inescapable that organisations have in recent years often replaced statutory sources of support with Housing Benefit subsidy. It is worth re-stating that the enhanced levels of subsidy for ‘exempt’ claims were never designed or intended to cover the costs of the support provision, but merely to account for the greater housing-related costs of providing it. Nonetheless, both a weak, confusing and difficult to challenge set of regulations combined with the swingeing cuts to statutory funding have created a set of circumstances in which organisations have felt forced, or at the very least have been encouraged, to follow this path; a situation I at best treat with the ambivalent knowledge that certain vital services would likely become unviable were the ‘rules’, such as they are these days, stringently adhered to.
So far, so ‘be careful what you wish for’ tricky.
It may appear, then, on the surface of this surface-level outline of the state of play, that a problematic and difficult to administer form of subsidy for supported housing is not the natural concern of a local authority Safeguarding Adults Board. However, this sub-sector in Birmingham has grown not out of any strategic vision of need or any careful stipulation, assurances and monitoring but out of, fundamentally, an ability to yield high rental costs within a weak Regulatory environment and a fertile supply of residents with not necessarily a need for supported housing but certainly with a lack of other feasible options. The particular make up of the sub-sector in Birmingham is subject to what I have termed a series of ‘accountability deficits’ and ‘risk gaps’; situational caveats and Regulatory loopholes that, when stacked against and on top of each other become so much more than the sum of their parts; creating an environment devoid of control and fraught with the potential to cause harm to those it is ostensibly there to support and protect. The full report analyses these issues in more detail, but it is worth touching upon the make-up of the sub-sector in Birmingham, some of the key ‘risk gaps’ and their overall significance.
Birmingham’s ‘exempt’ sub-sector is made up of, predominantly, shared accommodation (often small, residential units or Houses in Multiple Occupation). The dominant model is that of Registered Providers of Social Housing, leasing units from the private rented sector and working solely or largely within the exempt provisions of Housing Benefit; often with a wealth of arrangements of other providers or bodies working under their ‘umbrella’ and to the same model. These units are not commissioned by the local authority and need meet no other criteria than those under Housing Benefit regulations; that is:
“accommodation which is…provided by a non-metropolitan country council, a housing association, a registered charity or a voluntary organisation where that body or a person acting on its behalf also provides the claimant with care, support or supervision”
Housing Benefit administration does not, in itself, have the authority to assess or stipulate around the proficiency and capability of providers and staff, including their backgrounds or proficiency and suitability to work with vulnerable residents. As this provision is not under the purview of any commissioning contracts, it is also without assurances around the quality of both accommodation and of support and is not subject to any form of proactive monitoring or review beyond initial ‘setting up’ and point of claim. With this comes the gaps in housing legislation, with the Housing Act 2004 exempting houses in multiple occupation under Registered Providers from any mandatory, selective or additional licensing requirements; leaving a large intelligence, monitoring and enforcement gap around minimal property standards and the ‘fitness’ or otherwise of landlords to provide multiply occupied units. Many of these conversions to multiply occupied units also fall under ‘Permitted Development’ regulations, leaving no obligation for landlords to even notify, let alone seek permission, to convert from residential to multiple occupation usage.
Likewise, those assurances and avenues of recourse and redress at the resident or consumer level, that we might expect the Regulator of Social Housing to provide, are, at least at the moment, reactive and limited, with a breach of standards currently requiring a trigger of ‘serious detriment’. Regulatory scrutiny and enforcement are currently much more likely at the governance level, and we have of course more recently seen Regulatory interest, scrutiny and downgrading of a series of Registered Providers operating similar models to those we see in operation in Birmingham. Admittedly, this scrutiny has been driven largely at the governance and financial viability level; with attention falling on specific leasing models rather than on the potential for harm to residents. But it is, as everything initially must be, a start.
These accountability deficits and risk gaps have created a landscape that is unmonitored, largely unregulated and almost certainly uncontrolled, with both professional and resident attempts to seek recourse and redress frustrated at seemingly every turn. It is almost unspeakable that, under a worst-case scenario depiction, a provider that is not scrutinised for background, capability or legitimacy is able to claim high rental costs, with no monitoring or requirement to prove outcomes, and is able to work unsupervised with some of our most at risk and vulnerable citizens in their own homes. And before there are accusations of the hatchet job I was very keen not to inadvertently create with my work, this is the sector’s potential for harm at its worst; there are excellent examples of provision and practice; there are also the open-mouthed ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ derelictions of duty and care; and there is much provision falling somewhere in between; teetering perhaps at the ‘naive and well-meaning’ or ‘underequipped’ end of what is a wide and variegated spectrum. However, BSAB were, and remain, focused in their concern for the high potential for harm contained within the current landscape; with the high risk of inappropriate and harmful mixes of residents from unknown points of origin living in small, unmonitored settings, with the density of vulnerable residents in largely unknown and often insufficiently supportive environments characteristic, if not typical, of swathes of the sector. Such awareness and sensitivity to the potential for harm is a standpoint that I similarly adhere to and one that takes in the duty for prevention, detection and early intervention that should form part of any collective responsibility to support and protect those who need it.
BSAB were keen that any exploration of this vast, largely hidden and sometimes deeply complex sub-sector sought to shed some light upon the referral processes and mechanisms with which individuals are ‘introduced’ to non-commissioned exempt accommodation and how carefully or otherwise resident ‘mix’ is accounted for and monitored. Taking this as the nexus of the research, I set out to paint as rich and as detailed a picture as possible of our current reality; from sectoral landscapes and systems to referrals and assessment; from housing management regimes to the lived experience of residents. In a sector with many ‘known unknowns’, and which are difficult to interrogate and depict through overt research techniques, and with statistical data that is patchy and difficult to retrieve, the research methods sought to bring a level of experiential form and substance to what was previously a disjointed and opaque swirl of anecdote, supposition, misinformation and mistrust. Qualitative methods seem increasingly suspended at the mercy of accusations of subjectivity and the echoing rejoinder that they ‘won’t change policy’. Money; cold, hard figures, apparently, talk. That is a perspective I wholly rejected as a way to gain traction and influence in a landscape where seemingly everyone knows, or at least think they know, something, but where those who live and work with it every day are not often given the chance to speak, and I maintain that if I’ve done my job properly, for those who live or work within this sector, there will not be any jaw-on-the-floor revelations within the final report. So, money may talk but human experience, suffering and difficulty can speak a lot louder if they’re given the right platform of amplification.
In pursuit of this aim, I created a framework that was both exploratory and participatory, engaging a wide range of stakeholders involved in the sub-sector and allowing them space to talk and to reflect upon their current experiences, practices, hopes, fears and successes. 94 stakeholders, including residents, referral and support agencies, landlords and providers and strategic and expert stakeholders participated in semi-structured interviews which were grouped by theme and complemented by data on referral routes and desktop literature and policy reviews.
The report details in some depth the findings of these interviews and work on referral points and for the sake of brevity I will not dwell in too much depth here, aside from to touch upon some of the key points:
- Referral points of origin are vast and take in geographical points across the country, with those external to Birmingham referral routes largely without the local knowledge that internal bodies employ in an attempt to steer away from the more ‘risky’ providers
- There was no sense of a stepped or tiered approach to provision within small, shared, largely unmonitored units; with clients at all ‘journey points’ through homelessness often accessing the same unit, which has implications for safety, stability, sustainability and progress
- Referring agencies and clients have few tools to navigate the sector: the predominantly ‘crisis-led’ nature of referrals; the lack of clarity around providers and their remits; the lack of consistency around referral approach and the wealth of entry points and available providers renders any sense of ‘informal market stewardship’ difficult
- The exclusion of higher needs or higher risk clients from many commissioned services sees these individuals forced into an often underequipped and often less remunerated sub-sector
- The repeated exclusion of ‘higher needs’ clients from service provision has in effect designed much of the openness and honesty out of referral systems, making effective risk assessment difficult, with serious implications for both clients and accommodation providers
- Inappropriate placements and a sense of being ‘forced’ into a shared environment that was difficult or dangerous led many clients return to the streets, where they felt a greater level of autonomy and protection, effectively closing off shared accommodation as a future option or offer
- Clients felt they had little choice or control over where they were ‘sent’ which affected their overall experience and opinion of their living environment
- Effective and safe ‘client mix’, whilst never an ‘exact science’, is furthered hampered by ineffective referral mechanisms, systemic exclusion and sometimes a lack of awareness or care. There was evidence of some very serious failures in this respect.
- Residents’ experiences were largely negative, with many isolating themselves or adopting ‘self-protection’ strategies in order to shield themselves from intimidation, threats or difficulty within shared environments. Most wanted more say over who else lived in the property and reports of violence, criminality, theft and arguments were common
- Providers often struggled with clients who were experiencing difficulties or who had a high level of support need but were unable to access statutory or more structured support
- There was evidence of a not insignificant proportion of those accessing the sector who had no real support ‘need’ but were unable to access any other form of accommodation
- ‘Support’ itself was ill-defined and there were disparities between what referring agencies expected ‘support’ to entail and what providers themselves were equipped to deliver
- What providers offered and delivered in terms of ‘support’ varied widely but did not seem to be reflected in overall rental costs
- The lack of ‘move on’ options and the corresponding disincentive to move on clients within a settled household was causing residents to become trapped; leading in some cases to entrenchment and regression, with individuals ‘cycling round’ the sub-sector in order to achieve a level of safety and stability being much more common than exiting it
- Whilst not under a broad rubric of safety and wellbeing, the ‘benefits trap’ caused by high rents, which precluded residents from entering employment, was a constant theme within participant interviews
Ultimately, and underpinning all of these findings, is the stark truth that we are, in many senses, expecting a sub-sector that needs meet no other requirement than to provide, at least on paper, a ‘more than minimal’ level of ‘care, support and supervision’ to take the place of commissioned, specialist or statutory care and support and, in many cases, of general needs social hosing provision. For the current functioning of the ‘exempt’ sub-sector in Birmingham is not set of circumstances anyone who cares about human dignity and progress would have designed. Rather, it is an indictment of a social, economic and policy environment that has narrowed almost out of existence adequate housing choices for low income and vulnerable groups and cut local authority resources to the bone; benefit regulations that are open to subjective interpretation and abuse; housing policy that absolves certain bodies from sufficient regulation, and seemingly unrealistic expectations by some about what it entails to manage multiply occupied houses containing a variety of vulnerable, complex or at-risk individuals.
It is, too, worth repeating that there are good providers and many whom we need to further engage, learn from, and learn with. It is also worth highlighting what is ever-present on the minds and lips of many commentators in the locality when conversation turns to the burning imperative for reform: ‘but we need these providers!”’. There is undoubtedly a need this accommodation is fulfilling at present. Whether it is fulfilling a need for a certain type of supported accommodation or the need for some to have a roof over their head remains a trenchant question to pose. I’d certainly suggest it is a combination of the two, but we must at all costs avoid falling into a dangerous dynamic of at best avoiding the sticky questions because this accommodation is serving a purpose (whose purpose? is again an obvious question to ask) and at worst feeling ‘grateful’ to any provider, no matter how bad, who is ‘willing’ to take on some of our more excluded, vulnerable and at risk citizens.
Of course, what we need is suitable, truly affordable social housing; properly funded social care and adequately funded and monitored supported housing, with a greater link between cost and quality and designed-in flexibility to avoid disincentives to enter employment. We need more social – not affordable – housing and with that for social housing providers to stop excluding people based on their perceived suitability as a tenant or their likely ability to pay the rent. And with this we need more realistic and workable Local Housing Allowance rates, a drastic rethink of Universal Credit and of course that ‘sound and robust oversight regime’ and associated complete overhaul of those 22 year old ‘exempt’ Housing Benefit Regulations.
The likelihood of any or all of that happening at present, certainly when what political will we have seems to be embroiled, locally, in a battle to keep heads above water and, nationally, in the omnishambolic Brexit, seems slim. We should of course never lose sight of the broader aims that truly lie at the heart of the matter but there must be impetus and engagement with what progress and reform we can achieve at the margins. We must never settle for the status quo because it serves an expedient purpose.
To gently rebuff what often seems a commonplace in discussions about the what next? of this research, I have fallen into the habit of quoting from David Madden and Peter Marcuse’s In Defence of Housing:
“There are better and worse ways to respond to the contradiction between the ideal of housing as a right and the reality of housing in crisis. One bad way is to dispense with the ideal and settle for reforms only at the margins. Even worse is to wait around for some messianic revolution to solve the problem for us, and abandon efforts to change in the meantime”.
So, we may be at the margins currently, but this is where we have an obligation and a duty to start. The report and recommendations are gaining traction and it appears the right people are at least now listening, and we have achieved a significant amount of interest and buy-in from associated sectors; from the local authority; from Birmingham MPs and from the MHCLG. We are still very much at the start of what will surely be a long and difficult process but when I think back to early 2017 and to that ‘small group of thoughtful committed citizens’ sharing little more than a table and a collection of hopes, I think we can safely say we have made the best, and most integrally-driven, start.
Published date: 13 December 2018