The great divide

Housing and social services staff often deal with the same
clients but have different takes on services and how to provide
them. Ruth Winchester and
Katie Leason ask what social services and
housing might usefully do to improve relations with their opposite


An eight-foot hedge is great when you want to sunbathe in
private, but it’s not so good when you need your
neighbour’s help with the barbecue. Housing and social
services have often been less than cordial neighbours, but times
are changing for both parties and keeping the dividing hedge under
control is now more crucial than ever.

Different priorities and perspectives are clearly part of the
problem. Housing managers worry about the antisocial behaviour of a
few tenants driving other residents away, and are reluctant to
house those who might cause problems.

Social workers struggle to secure housing for vulnerable people and
then see them evicted just when things start to improve. One side
blames the other, they both feel aggrieved, undervalued and
misunderstood. But how much of this is really about “cultural
differences”, and how much is simply a lack of

Social services’ view of housing

Lack of mutual respect is definitely an issue, says Andrea
Cannon, Supporting People manager at Surrey Council, who has worked
in both social services and housing. She says: “There’s
a real need for each party to respect the professionalism of the
other and the particular skills and knowledge that they

But there are plenty of other sources of frustration for social
services. One is housing’s lack of awareness and tolerance of
clients’ needs. Vulnerable clients – for instance those
with mental health problems or drug and alcohol issues – may
struggle to keep to the narrow terms of their tenancy agreements.
Many social services staff complain of a harsh line from housing
agencies, leading to eviction and homelessness that compounds the

The shortage of social housing also means that people who
desperately need homes are turned down or left waiting for months
or years, often to the immense frustration of social services.
Social workers report working intensively with birth families in
order to return children to them, only to find that the reunion is
impossible because appropriate housing is not available. And
leaving care teams say housing agencies are often reluctant to
house homeless young people, which creates problems for councils
which may have a duty to provide accommodation and support. The
Audit Commission is now investigating lettings policies (news, page
13, 24 June).

More mundane requirements can also cause headaches. Greg Everatt,
assistant integrated commissioning manager at Cumbria Council, is
involved in services for people with learning difficulties. He says
that they often need someone with them during the night for health
or security reasons, which necessitates an extra bedroom.
“Not all housing providers recognise this and it can be a
cause of tension.”

Everatt also complains about housing’s limited focus on
bricks and mortar, compared with the broader range of issues dealt
with by social services. “In social services there’s
much more of a sense of working with people in their whole life
– we are more flexible about boundaries,” he

Another gripe is the time it takes to get housing to act. Michelle
Coleborn, a care manager for older people’s mental health at
Hampshire Council, says it is sometimes a case of “he who
shouts the loudest” gets the results and that getting action
can take months. She cites the case of a physically disabled man
who was unable to get to his entry phone to buzz visitors in. His
carers came four times a day and had begun to pester his neighbours
in order to gain access. Coleborn says all that was required was
for his bell to be moved into the kitchen, where he spent most of
his time. “But this took eight weeks to sort,” she

Difficulties can be caused by the way that housing responsibilities
are divided up in some areas. While county councils are responsible
for social services, the housing remit falls to borough and
district councils. So some social services departments have to
liaise with more than 10 housing departments, each with different
policies, procedures and eligibility criteria.

Mark Stainton, head of social care at East Sussex Council, says his
local authority has tried to counteract this by setting up special
needs housing officer posts funded half by the county council and
half by the borough and district councils. But despite the added
complexity, Stainton would not want housing to be brought within
the county council alongside social services, arguing that
“it’s important that housing is focused on a more local

Social services and housing have taken significant steps to improve
the way they work together but divisions remain. Not everyone is in
favour of merging the two departments in order to achieve better
joint working, but there is little doubt that learning more about
the “other side”, through joint meetings, training, or
work shadowing, could help to keep the hedge trimmed and

Housing’s view of social services

A day in the life of a housing manager: a morning spent
wandering the local housing estate with a clipboard noting
overgrown gardens, followed by an afternoon explaining to a
succession of sofa-surfing teenagers and single mothers why
they’re not any nearer the top of the housing list, and why
they really ought to be talking to social services instead.

But spare a thought for these hard-nosed accountants. It might be
tempting to conclude that they’re simply too interested in
the bottom line to notice that some of their residents might be
vulnerable or struggling on low incomes. But in fact, social
services have to shoulder a fair part of the blame for the state of
the boundary hedge. Talk to a few housing people and you soon find
that there are many things social services could do to be more

One of the major irritations is when social services start pinching
their cash. Sue Witherspoon is director of strategy for English
Churches, a large national housing association. She claims social
services have misappropriated a large amount of funding which was
intended for housing-related services for people with low to
medium-level support needs. She says: “Supporting People was
a funding stream designed to help people with relatively low levels
of need. But it was a very large pot of money which proved a bit
too tempting for social services. A lot of Supporting People
funding is legitimate but there are some extremely high cost client
groups in there who were always funded by social services and who
are now funded – I think wrongly – by Supporting

As a result, many housing organisations are concerned that if, as
expected, the Supporting People belt is tightened social services
will cut back on services for those with lower support needs.
Witherspoon believes this will put some housing projects at risk
and could exacerbate the feeling among housing staff that they
“have to watch people deteriorate until they meet the social
services criteria”.

A second factor is the turnover of staff and pressures within
social services. Rebecca Pritchard is director of services for
homelessness charity Centrepoint, and runs their hostel programme.
“Large numbers of vacancies in some social services
departments mean they’re too busy fire fighting on things
like child protection to focus on the way their care leavers are
being housed.

In others there is a massive turnover of staff, and in that climate
it’s very difficult because co-operation between housing and
social services often depends on individual workers getting on well
or developing a good understanding of the issues. If that person
leaves after 12 months, you’ve spent all that time building
up knowledge and relationships only to have to start again from

She believes lack of co-ordination can also be a problem.
“Centrepoint has one project where two-thirds of the unit
were reserved for referrals from the local leaving care team, yet a
lot of the spaces were empty. Not because they didn’t need
the places, but because they were very badly organised. Lots of
social services departments are under huge amounts of pressure, and
there’s a sense that they don’t often help themselves.
It can be a real challenge to work with them.”

Witherspoon goes further. “It’s about quality of staff,
too. Someone who’s working on big complex projects, dealing
with million pound contracts, large amounts of land, new buildings
and so on needs to be a highly competent project manager to oversee
it all. But in social services the turnover of staff and the
problems in recruitment sometimes mean that the quality of staff
just isn’t there.”

Many social landlords also resent the fact that social services
seem to think they’re all rich and mean. Says Witherspoon:
“There’s a perception that housing associations are
rich, so social services believe they ought to be able to get
something for nothing. It’s a fallacy – we might have
reserves of £25m but that’s not money sitting in the
bank, it’s just a reduction in our level of

Another gripe is that housing doesn’t get the full picture
from social services. Many housing workers said they felt social
services were being deliberately misleading by not passing on all
the facts about the clients they referred to housing, and some
reported housing staff having been put at risk as a result of a
failure to share information.

In terms of what might help, there were several suggestions.
Co-locating teams was one suggestion, though not all approved of
the idea. Others suggested that joint training, job swaps, away
days, and even transposing housing and social services staff on
secondments into the other department would help to build
relationships and ease tensions.

Another suggestion was for social services to keep up the pressure
to get what they want from housing agencies. Sheila Spencer is a
housing consultant with expertise in working with substance
misusers and homeless young people. She says the reluctance of many
social landlords to house social services clients “needs to
be tackled head on. You need to keep banging on about it and not
accept decisions lying down. Eventually it does pay

At Centrepoint, Rebecca Pritchard says clear national guidance from
government is needed. “We badly need a national steer on how
housing and social services agencies should work with each other
– an expectation at national level about how and when it
should happen. We really need some firm guidance.”

Perhaps government policy also needs to be addressed.
“Housing associations are now expected to be more proactive
about managing antisocial behaviour,” says Witherspoon,
“and they are also required to consult tenants about it and
draw up strategies which consider tenants’ views.

“A lot of tenants are understandably worried about antisocial
behaviour and so through consultation we sometimes end up with
policies and procedures which are more punitive than we might
otherwise have chosen. But if I was an elderly tenant in supported
accommodation, I’d want to be at peace. I can see both
sides.” CC

Social services’ gripes about housing

1. Everything takes so long.

2. Housing doesn’t fully appreciate what clients need.

3. Housing focuses on housing and knows little about social

4. There’s not enough accommodation and too many temporary
places are used.

5. There’s not enough flexibility over tenancy

Housing’s gripes about social services

1. Using the Supporting People money for things they should fund

2. Having such high eligibility criteria that we have to watch
people deteriorate without a service.

3. Thinking that housing organisations are rich and can give
something for nothing.

4. Staff moving on just when you’d got a workable
relationship established.

5. Failing to share information.

Why we annoy each other – comments from housing and social
services staff

“Social workers give people too much rope and allow them
to build arrears and take time. This is against housing practice,
law, fiscal reality, political balance and probity.”

“Social services don’t want to retain responsibility
for clients that they have placed in our schemes. They have a
tendency to think of placed clients as ‘problem solved’
whereas we have taken them on the expectation that there will
continue to be an ongoing relationship, including the provision of
a care package.”

“Housing often lacks knowledge about the legislation that
applies to social services – and they rarely show much
interest in finding out more.”

“It would be useful for housing departments to have a
delegated person to provide a link with social services.”

“The problem isn’t necessarily between housing and
social services but starts much higher up the chain of command.
There is a problem with joint commitment and joined up thinking in
the various central government departments, and this creates
tensions and difficulties locally.”

“Local authorities need to have a small emergency team
where social workers and housing staff work together. They also
need to hold a stock of flats, houses, and units in common so that
deals and arrangements can be sorted out.”

“Internal communications between departments in councils
are sometimes poor. Staff talk of sitting in meetings with
different departments of the same council, where they express
surprise at what each other is doing.”

“We have an ‘at risk’ monthly meeting attended
by health, social services, housing, and the police. Care managers
and those from other disciplines can register and discuss anyone
they feel is either at risk or potential risk. It’s helpful
for moving housing issues on.”

“Job swapping wouldn’t work because the legislation
on housing and social care is too complex.”

“Housing agencies are taking a counterproductive line over
arrears. A  single mother with three young kids can be threatened
with eviction because they are in rent arrears of £700. For a
council that’s nothing; it could be written off in an instant
to avoid them becoming homeless.”

“Housing is changing – it is less about social
responsibility and more about being ‘in business for
communities’. Local authority housing teams tended to take
their responsibilities to vulnerable people quite seriously;
that’s not so much of a priority for housing associations.
Their allegiance is to the majority, not the minority who are in
the greatest need.”

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