Boarded up in Bradford
As Gingerbread Housing Project closes for good, Rhiannon Bury kicks off our procurement special by examining the devastating human impact of cuts to Supporting People budgets.
Source: Lorne Campbell / Guzelian
Two weeks ago today, staff at a small housing charity in Bradford cleared their desks, packed up their belongings and left work for the last time. The money had run out and there was nothing left to pay them with.
Gingerbread Housing Project closed at the end of March following months of uncertainty after the council axed its £160,000 annual funding. Until then, it had provided temporary supported housing for about 100 homeless lone parents and their children each year.
‘We don’t know where our clients have gone,’ says Corine Campbell, manager at Gingerbread, her voice full of despair. She is speaking just weeks after the last 10 families were forced to leave Gingerbread’s care.
Ms Campbell thinks these former clients are squeezing in with family and friends. ‘But there’s no one else out there like us,’ she says. ‘There’s nowhere else for lone parents to go.’
While people were in their care, the staff offered support and advice on home management, parenting skills, welfare benefits and debts. Once a resident was rehoused, the organisation continued to keep in touch. Today all that is left is an empty building and the odd discarded toy.
The charity lost out when Bradford Council cut just over £1 million from its annual £23.7 million Supporting People budget, which meant that two projects bit the dust when the financial year ended. Gingerbread was one, and the Salvation Army-run Lawley House single homelessness project was the other. In all, 113 service users will be affected by the cuts made in the 2011/12 financial year, the council says.
The Gingerbread Project is far from alone, however. Freedom of information requests seen by Inside Housing have for the first time revealed the scale of the cuts to Supporting People budgets, which councils have cut furthest and which services have been forced to close as a result.
Where the axe fell
So how many local authorities have cut links from their SP supply chain? What types of services have proved most at risk of the axe? And, most importantly, what does all this mean for vulnerable people?
According to the FOI requests of the 152 councils in England which receive SP funding, 305 services were cut completely in 2011/12. Older people were most affected, with 54 services cut.
Bruce Moore, chief executive of housing association Hanover, which provides housing for more than 30,000 older people across England and Wales, believes this was because older people’s services tend to be relatively low cost per person, compared with other services, such as facilities for drug and alcohol abuse.
‘There hasn’t been much squeezing [of budgets],’ he explains. ‘Services have been cut completely [and care given elsewhere] or they have stayed.’
Homelessness charities were the next most vulnerable, with 48 services losing their council contracts. Research published last week by umbrella body Homeless Link claims that in the past two years the sector has lost 2,206 bed spaces in England as a result of spending cuts on homelessness services.
Gingerbread’s Ms Campbell says each of the figures represents a real human cost. ‘We had a 70 per cent success rate,’ she says - meaning seven out of 10 people the organisation helped were still holding their secure tenancies and, as a result, were living in stable housing a year after leaving Gingerbread.
The ultimate result of the project’s closure is 12 people out of a job in Bradford and many more who will never benefit from the services Gingerbread once offered.
Chain of cuts
Janice Simpson, Bradford Council’s interim strategic director for adult and community services, blames cuts from government for the reduction in SP funding overall.
‘Gingerbread Housing Project was informed last June that its funding would not be renewed. We have been working with them to ensure that all those who use the service get alternative support,’ she says.
Matt Harrison, interim chief executive of Homeless Link, says the organisation’s members across the country are having a hard time. ‘We are deeply concerned that as these cuts hit we will face more closures and more people being left without the support they need to get off the streets and back into a life of independence. In hard times, we might not be able to stop people from losing their homes, but we should be able to help them get back on their feet.’
Councils across England will have totted up the budgets for this year in the past couple of weeks, and there will almost inevitably be further cuts.
Homeless Link’s Mr Harrison is clear: ‘Our message is simple - don’t cut further. The more people who become trapped in a cycle of homelessness, the worse it will be for everyone,’ he says, emphatically.
But shrinking budgets call for desperate measures, and with no ring fence on the annual £1.6 billion Supporting People money, local authorities can dig into it to help other services which are similarly struggling.
The 305 services that have already been affected by cuts include AIDS projects, refuges for women fleeing domestic violence and asylum seekers’ homes - all helping people who are often in desperate need of support.
Some councils are trying to do things differently. Gillian Campbell, cabinet member for housing at Blackpool Council, says not only is she trying to get the ring fence on its £5.6 million SP budget reinstated, she’s trying to get providers to do their bit too.
‘We’ve asked providers to take a 5 per cent cut [on the value of their contracts], so we can set up an “invest to save” scheme. We have to make sure we’re supporting the most vulnerable people, so that 5 per cent will be reinvested in the SP plan.
‘Not all providers are happy about it, but in the long run it will help sustain services,’ she explains.
This is why Blackpool Council is limiting cuts to the SP budget this year, although its figures are yet to be finalised. Last April it was cut by 17.7 per cent from £6.8 million. ‘We had to make £28 million worth of cuts across the council last year,’
Ms Campbell says, ‘and this year it’s £10 million, so we’re hoping [SP] won’t be hit as badly.’
It’s a constant, precarious balancing act for providers keen to maintain relationships with local authorities while negotiating contracts. Jeremy Grey, chief executive of South London YMCA, says: ‘I am concerned about the impact on quality of services if there were any more cuts.’ He has just begun a process of staff and service restructuring in a bid to save money wherever he can.
‘In three of our hostels we’re introducing “non-supported beds”. Where previously 100 per cent of beds would be funded by SP, now around 40 per cent will be. This is because there are people in Supporting People-funded services who no longer require support, so they will be in [non-supported] beds.’
He admits it isn’t the perfect solution - people in ‘non-supported beds’ don’t receive as much staff interaction or direct help - but is hesitant to criticise the councils for fear of losing more precious money.
According to the FOI data, eight councils made no change to their SP budget last year, and seven managed to increase their spending.
Leicestershire Council swelled its £7.1 million 2010/11 budget by 4 per cent in 2011/12, to £7.4 million. David Sprason, cabinet member for adults and community, said the increase had come from efficiencies.
‘Any efficiency savings we made by reducing services were put back into supporting new services,’ he says. ‘We’ve got a more joined-up approach now. The [SP] budget helps keep people living independently.’
However, this is far from the norm. As well as the services that have been cut, some 685 have been reduced.
It’s a huge number. Domini Gunn-Peim, director of public health and vulnerable communities at the Chartered Institute of Housing, says the problem is not just a lack of services, but a lack of staff with specialist knowledge.
‘There is a risk there is an assumption that as long as you have some housing-related support it doesn’t have to be specialised,’ she says, adding that it will take between three and five years for the full impact of the cuts, coupled with the depletion of skills, to be felt by ‘huge numbers of people’.
Meanwhile, in Bradford, Ms Campbell has been made redundant from a job she is passionate about. Since the 1990s Gingerbread has helped more than 1,000 families - some staff members have been there from the start; now they’re out of work. ‘We are all devastated,’ she says. ‘People won’t get as good a service elsewhere because we really cared about people - we have the expertise.’
It’s too late for Gingerbread - £160,000 worth of council contracts lost and no other funding found. ‘The building will be boarded up after today and that’s it,’ Ms Campbell says. ‘All those people helped, and it’s come to this.’