Spend now or get less next year

    Gary Vaux explains why it makes sense to maximise housing
    benefit over the next year.

    In less than two years time, Supporting People takes over the
    funding of support costs – are the key elements being put in
    place?

    Supporting People begins in earnest in April 2003. This pot of
    money will be used to fund support costs in a vast range of
    supported and sheltered accommodation. At present, some of that
    cost is being met through housing benefit – specifically, the
    transitional housing benefit scheme (THBS), in place since April
    2000.

    The aim of Supporting People is to improve the strategic
    planning of supported accommodation – only schemes that meet
    specific criteria will get funding, instead of the “demand-led”
    method that currently exists. But, whatever the grandiose rationale
    is for Supporting People, the THBS is the real key to success of
    the new arrangements.

    This is because the amount of money that will be put into
    Supporting People in 2003, and the distribution of that money, will
    be largely determined by how much transitional housing benefit is
    spent on support costs in the next year. Put crudely – the more
    housing benefit is paid out for support costs in your area this
    year, the more you will have to allocate in 2003.

    Supporting People encompasses support for a vast range of
    vulnerable groups and individuals – care-leavers, people with
    mental health problems or learning difficulties, substance
    misusers, ex-offenders, tenants of sheltered housing and so on. The
    “support” that can be funded includes lifeskills training,
    counselling, budgeting, helping with claim forms, even shopping and
    errand-running in sheltered housing.

    When, in 2003, housing benefit is stripped back to only cover
    basic “rent” costs, then your local Supporting People pot needs to
    be big enough to make-up the shortfall. And the only way you can
    make sure of that is to maximise housing benefit over the next year
    or so.

    Is maximising happening? So far, the signs are not good. I am
    still hearing of housing benefit teams who are taking a very hard
    line on allowing support costs to be included within the rent,
    especially when those support costs begin to go up above the
    £40 to £50 per week mark. The Department of Social
    Security has issued guidance on a number of occasions, strongly
    “advising” local teams to be flexible but some still haven’t taken
    the hint.

    In other areas, I have heard about social services departments
    who are still funding “care packages” that could be incorporated
    into the tenant’s rent and met by housing benefit.

    We also hear about private tenants who could be funded under the
    THBS but who are missing out. In order to get their support costs
    met through housing benefit, private tenants have to get “community
    care assessments” from social services. This can be very cumbersome
    and lead to inconsistencies. They may have substantial need for
    help with budgeting and social skills but are not seen as
    “disabled” as far as community care assessments are concerned.

    The DSS agreed last year that the assessment need not be the
    full or detailed kind that social services would normally do when
    considering services. This led to a simplified pro-forma being
    devised, which your local housing benefit service should be
    using.

    Supporting People involves, a bureaucratic process. Whole new
    committees have to be established, commissioning and reviewing
    arrangements set up, and so on, irrespective of whether you have
    £5 or £5 million to allocate.

    Most local authorities are making a real effort at getting ready
    for Supporting People – it would be sad if this was undermined by
    there simply not being enough money in the pot for them to
    allocate.

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