Supporting People services are under enormous pressure, according to an exclusive new survey by Inside Housing and Capita. Here, Jess McCabe charts providers’ struggle to keep their heads above water as the plug is pulled on their funding.
At the YMCA in Penzance, Cornwall, a converted captain’s houseprovides nine single rooms for young people with complex and multiple problems. ‘They tend to be the young people no one else will take,’ says David Hall-Davies, chief executive of the service.
But last year Cornwall Council pulled the plug on 30 per cent of the service’s funding under the Supporting People programme by the local authority.
‘In 2010, all existing SP service providers were asked to make proposals in relation to the reduction to the SP budget in Cornwall,’ says a spokesperson from Cornwall Council. ‘The YMCA, like other providers, responded and proposed using a combination of approaches to continue the services… reprofiling the service within the reduced contract price.’
Redundancies followed, which led to a reduction in the level of support available to clients, particularly from overnight staff. ‘It’s a much sparser service. The young people onsite are the losers,’ states Mr Hall-Davies.
This sinking feeling is familiar to providers of housing-related services, which have relied on SP funding from the government to support groups such as homeless people, older people, domestic violence victims and drug and alcohol users.
An exclusive online survey by Inside Housing and Capita has confirmed what many supported housing providers already suspected: funding is being slashed at a time when demand for their services is rising.
This is the third year we’ve run the care and support survey, which has revealed three consecutive years of deep cuts to the amount of SP money providers receive. Respondents tell us they fear that yet more rounds of cuts are on the cards, which could leave them forced to further reduce their already depleted services, or close down altogether.
The 167 individuals from across the UK who took part in the survey were asked to identify their main concerns about delivering SP services over the next 12 to 18 months. First and foremost came ‘reducing service offering’, with 71 per cent of respondents listing it among their three biggest worries; 67 per cent, meanwhile, feared ‘closure of services’ (see graph 1). More than half were most concerned that, in order to stay afloat, their organisations would need to reduce staff numbers.
Uncertainty looms over many providers while they wait to find out how local authority commissioners will alter their approach to SP funding, by integrating services with those run by organisations such as the NHS perhaps, or by switching to payment by results. The survey reveals that there is currently a great deal of anxiety in the sector over what comes next.
Mr Hall-Davies, for example, says Cornwall YMCA is on tenterhooks to see what happens when Cornwall Council redesigns and retenders its SP services. In the meantime, ‘we’re exploring ways of having a future without SP [funding]. [But] we would have to take a much more ruthless approach to who we support because the staffing will be much less,’ he prophesies.
At the moment, some of the young people the service helps have returned two or three times before they have been able to live independently. This might not be possible in future –they will be turned away – nor may it be possible to help those with more complicated needs, who require more intensive help.
The government cut the SP budget by 11.5 per cent to £6.5 billion as part of the comprehensive spending review in 2010. The funding is distributed to local authorities, which are meant to use it to pay for housing-related support services.
However, the previous government removed the ring fence put around this funding, which previously forced councils to spend SP funding on SP services in 2009. Our survey adds to evidence that some local authorities are making aggressive cuts, and spending the money on other priorities.
Of the survey respondents, 79 per cent have had their SP funding cut by up to half over the past year (see graph 2) and of those who have had their budget slashed, 47 per cent have cut staff and services as a result (see graph 3). In the same survey last year, 55 per cent of services had seen cuts of up to a quarter of their SP budget, more than a fifth of respondents had their funding slashed by between 25 and 50 per cent, and 16 per cent had lost a whopping three quarters of their SP cash.
It’s the people who are dependent on SP services that lose out, sums up Jackie Carpenter, a member of Derby’s Supporting People Providers Forum, which represents organisations that receive SP funding in the area.
In Derby, the council has absorbed a cut from £10 million in 2011/12 to £6.6 million in 2012/13 by reallocating other funds. However, by 2013/14, funding will have shrunk to £3.3 million under plans being consulted on.
Brian Frisby, director of Younger Adults and Housing at the council, says: ‘This will not happen until public consultation has been concluded and new tenders have been awarded.’ Derby Council has also announced plans to scrap existing contracts, starting commissioning services with a blank sheet.
Ms Carpenter comments: ‘If you [as an SP provider] lose two thirds of your budget over a couple of years, you are going to have massively reduced services and a lot more people who will be expected to survive on their own,’ she says.
‘Most local authorities are now acknowledging there’s no such thing as Supporting People anymore,’ adds Maurice Condie, chief executive of Tyne Housing Association, which runs 37 supported housing projects.
Some more enlightened authorities are protecting services, Mr Condie adds. Most, however, are placed in an untenable position.
‘[Government is] not giving local authorities enough to meet its statutory responsibilities. It’s going to have to dip into the non-ring-fenced Supporting People money,’ he says.
One senior homelessness officer, who works for a council and asked to remain anonymous, explains what is going on behind the scenes at councils: ‘Within local authorities you will find officers fighting desperately to get the money that has their department’s name on it.’
In Islington, north London, the council is reviewing its SP plans for the next few years – services will be assessed, re-commissioned and cut. And the pressure is on. ‘We’re trying to make sure we protect the SP budgets and services, so they’re not just focusing on statutory services,’ says Patrick Odling-Smee, director of housing at the local authority.
In general, the number of providers is likely to be reduced, he predicts, with big, more efficient providers taking over from smaller services because they can provide the service at lower cost. ‘We can squeeze out some of the more inefficient providers,’ he notes.
Smaller organisations typically offer more specialised care – so if only more generalist providers can afford to stay open, vulnerable people that fit into groups with particular needs could be the hardest hit.
Half of those survey respondents who expect their services will be cut over the next 12 months believe the axe is most likely to fall on older people’s services. A third, meanwhile, expect cuts will have the greatest impact on services for 18 to 24-year-olds.
Inti Popat, finalist in this year’s Rising Stars competition, is a supported housing management officer working in older people’s services in Leicester at 13,000-home Asra Housing Group. Asra has seen a drop in SP funding for older peoples’ services alone of about 37 per cent since the 2010 comprehensive spending review, from about £630,000 a year to about £400,000. Mr Popat says: ‘As an organisation, we have some serious concerns that these types of cuts for preventative services will lead to costs [to other organisations and society] elsewhere.’
Asra is plugging the gap for the moment from its own balance sheet, and is also looking at how to maximise the use of housing benefits and service charges to fund services.
There are some benefits, Mr Popat says – without funding from outside sources, Asra is free to design services in accordance with its tenants’ needs, not funders’ objectives. But ultimately, there won’t be enough money to carry on the same level of support.
‘It’s unnerving for us as providers, and also for residents themselves. A lot of people have signed up to services that they’re not necessarily going to be getting,’ Mr Popat explains.
Before budgets for its general SP services were cut by 30 per cent, and those for its older people services reduced by 50 per cent, 5,300-home Severnside Housing’s sheltered living schemes had a dedicated manager who visited three or four times a week. Now the elderly residents get just one visit. ‘We have not cut any services, but are delivering in a different way and, in sheltered schemes, we’re delivering a reduced service of daily well-being calls and one visit a week,’ explains Shirley Castree, the Shropshire-based housing association’s supported housing manager.
‘Some older people receive floating support as well, but it has been quite bewildering for them,’ she says.
Cuts are taking place at a time when demand for SP services is rising. Eighty per cent of survey respondents have seen demand for supporting people services increase in the past 12 months. The majority have seen demand increase by up to 20 per cent. Five per cent have seen far more dramatic rises, with the need for the help they offer rising by 60 per cent.
Most of those who completed our survey put the increased demand down to the worsening economy and changes to the benefit system. ‘People are becoming homeless for the same reasons [such as relationship breakdown], but it’s just become heightened,’ states Alice Evans, head of policy at homelessness organisations’ umbrella body, Homeless Link.
A fifth of respondents say their organisation has been unable to meet demand for its services because resources and budgets have been squeezed. And more than 40 per cent are handling the same number of cases, but with fewer staff (see graph 4). ‘We are being placed in professionally compromising and ethically untenable positions,’ sums up one individual who answered our questions.
A number of survey respondents say they are cutting staff salaries. Mr Maurice at Tyne, for example, says: ‘We have had staff restructuring, with some staff taking a £2,000 a year drop in pay.’
In order to continue keep services afloat many organisations are turning to technology. A huge 86 per cent of those who completed our survey say it’s possible to make efficiency savings by investing in this area.
This is particularly true in back-office administration, where nearly 70 per cent of survey respondents believe savings can be made. More than two thirds of respondents feel that mobile working is another area where efficiencies can be achieved.
‘There’s quite a few people there who said they think technology can help,’ says Stewart Davison, product launch manager at Capita. ‘Technology can help organisations become more efficient,’ he adds, ‘if it’s used appropriately.’
And things are about to be shaken up again, with the government moving towards a ‘payment by results’ approach to commissioning services. This system, which in some cases offers around 80 per cent of funding up front, and the rest handed over only if targets are met, is currently being piloted by 10 providers.
Just 10 per cent of respondents think this model will improve services, while more than half are sitting on the fence, answering ‘maybe’ (see graph 5).
How ‘results’ are defined is troubling respondents, especially in relation to client groups with multiple or complex needs such as ex-offenders and entrenched rough sleepers, where a 100 per cent success rate is just not possible.
One respondent, a chief executive of a service for young people, summed up the thoughts of many, asking: ‘Who decides how and what is measured as a “result”?’
‘It is introducing cuts by the back door,’ suspects one head of support services at a housing association.
Some organisations like Richmond Housing Partnership are working with local NHS trusts to deliver services they can no longer afford to provide by themselves.
Ian Whiteway, anti-social behaviour manager at the 8,543 -home organisation explains that many London councils had to cut drug and alcohol services as a result of SP funding cuts.
‘We decided to go and work with the NHS. We still need to provide services for our people here,’ he explains. ‘It’s about not sitting there and dwelling on the fact that you haven’t got any money. You really have to go out there and battle and find these other sources of money.’
But the survey results show some uneasiness with the idea of joining forces. Less than 16 per cent of respondents are already working with the NHS and local authority social care departments on providing integrated services. A large proportion of respondents remain undecided, with 42 per cent saying integrated services ‘may be achievable’.
Almost 10 per cent, however, say integrating services is not achievable. ‘It’s difficult to find links into health – they are not always that interested in housing and don’t always understand support services,’ one survey respondent comments.
‘Housing staff are constantly tearing their hair out trying to engage with social services and the NHS with virtually no success due to those staff thinking housing is neither important nor an essential partner in the services they provide,’ says another.
Others express reservations that integrating services will be a further drain on resources from housing-related support services, as services such as the NHS, which are facing cuts themselves, will be more interested in treating the immediate problem rather than preventative support.
It has already been proven that investing in SP services saves money in the long run. A report published in 2008 by the previous government, conducted by research company Capgemini, concluded that spending £1.55 billion a year on the SP programme ultimately saved government £2.77 billion.
It’s now down to housing providers to gather the data to help them demonstrate that SP services are crucial in the longer term, concludes Vic Raynor, chief executive of supported housing umbrella body Sitra. ‘We need to be able to talk to local commissioners in the future about what it is that preventative services deliver,’ she says.
In the meantime, our survey respondents continue to try to keep their services above water and attempt to stop the help they offer to vulnerable people being washed down the plughole.