Most observers have welcomed last week’s consultation on the future of Supporting People, as a genuine attempt at starting a dialogue on the future of the programme.
Creating Sustainable Communities: Supporting Independence sets down broad aims and makes tentative suggestions, but leaves many questions for the supported housing sector to ponder ahead of the publication of a full strategy, expected next summer.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s focus on streamlining the bureaucracy which has dogged the £1.7bn programme since its 2003 introduction, has met with approval. But other ideas in the document are likely to be more contentious, chief among them the proposal to remove the programme’s ring-fence.
The report accepts that separating off the grant has helped to protect disadvantaged groups but also says it has prevented the programme from being properly integrated into local authority planning.
It concludes that local authorities must be given more “flexibility” and proposes three options – a separate grant that would not be ring-fenced, full integration into councils’ block revenue support grant, or delivery through local area agreements.
While LAAs, where councils are given freedom over how they spend government funding in return for agreed outcomes, appear to be the ODPM’s favoured option, it also suggests a mixed approach.
This would involve dividing the programme into three groups: those needing care and support, such as severely disabled people, those needing low-level support, such as sheltered housing residents, and the most excluded groups who need crisis support, such as homeless people.
For the first two groups, the funding could be part of the mainstream budget but for the third, and most politically unpopular group, LAAs would, the report says, provide stronger protection.
But National Housing Federation policy officer Sue Ramsden has concerns about how services for groups such as homeless people, drug users and offenders will be protected if the ring-fence is removed. She fears outcome measures could be too general to safeguard individual services and there would not be enough protection for people who do not have a local connection, as authorities concentrate on meeting local priorities.
And Chartered Institute of Housing policy officer Sarah Davis says LAAs are still new themselves and committing to them might be premature before they have proved their effectiveness.
The report also acknowledges that there are problems with losing the ring-fence for the other two groups. For those with care and support needs, it suggests integrating the funding with social care budgets, but admits there is a risk that funding will get diverted to groups for which councils have a statutory responsibility. The document says arrangements will have to be put in place to prevent this but Ramsden argues that the integrated approach still makes sense.
“For care and support services the boundaries are artificial, they are created by different funding mechanisms,” she says. But she fears people with lower support needs may lose out if commissioning is driven by social services applying their traditional eligibility criteria, targeted at those in acute need.
Those receiving low levels of support are often older people and sheltered housing provider Anchor Trust says the strategy must give them greater priority.
Anchor’s housing services managing director Barbara Laing says that although older people make up 70 per cent of Supporting People beneficiaries they receive only 17 per cent of funding.
She says they traditionally lose out to younger groups who have a similar level of need when it comes to social care funding.
“Sheltered housing is a low-cost, high-impact service and I don’t think a lot of people outside the world of sheltered housing realise that,” she says.
Another challenge the report poses for low-support providers is the introduction of direct payments and individual budgets.
Laing welcomes the move and is confident that sheltered housing tenants value their existing support services and would choose to stay with them. “If they don’t then there’s a message there for me,” she says.
But Ramsden believes it may not be feasible to disaggregate support services, such as warden schemes, from general sheltered housing provision, as they would need to be to become available under an individual budget.
They are typically closely integrated with housing and often paid for through a combination of rents and Supporting People. And for individual tenants, the £5 to £10 a week they receive in Supporting People funding would not pay for anything else on its own.
There are many issues to be hammered out over the coming months – some see an overemphasis in the strategy on floating support (that is, funding not tied to a particular property) and a lack of focus on funding for new supported housing developments.
But the crucial question for many providers and authorities alike will be whether the strategy can bring financial stability to a programme that has never really settled down.
The Local Government Association believes the commitment in the strategy to base up to 5 per cent of total budgets on a new distribution formula by 2007-8 leaves councils with another period of uncertainty. A spokesperson says: “The ‘missing 5 per cent’ could be the difference between standstill budgets and cuts as far as Supporting People is concerned. The ODPM said it was going to give us certainty over the long-term and to be honest that simply isn’t there at the moment.”
But Ramsden argues that the consultation paper was never realistically going to provide the stability people wanted. That can only come after the 2007 comprehensive spending review and a final decision on the distribution formula.
Creating Sustainable Communities: Supporting Independence is available from www.spkweb.org.uk. The consultation ends 28 February.
The current arrangements for distributing Supporting People funds are based on how many supported housing services existed at councils when the scheme was introduced in 2003.
The distribution formula published for consultation last week aims to put the programme’s funding on a more needs-based footing.
The formula calculates allocations based on the numbers of people in particular client groups, such as older people or women fleeing domestic violence, likely to have a need for housing support in each area.
The figure is then subject to a local deprivation index, which may include measurements of housing density and ethnicity, depending on the results of the consultation.
The most contentious question appears to be over the pace and scope of the change. With some local authorities facing the prospect of eventually losing more than 60 per cent of their Supporting People funding (see panel above, left) the consultation asks what the cap on annual decreases or increases should be.
The faster the change is made, the quicker some authorities will benefit and the quicker others will lose out.
Ian Gilders, Supporting People manager at West Berkshire Council, could see his budget eventually cut by 57 per cent or £3.2m.
He says the borough could lose out partly because it is relatively affluent but also because it has a history of providing “a reasonably good level of supported housing, some of which met needs from outside the district”.