Sticking to her Gunns
The Chartered Insitute of Housing’s new defender of services for vulnerable people Domini Gunn-Peim kicks off our care and support special by telling Rhiannon Bury how spending cuts, housing and welfare reform mean her new role is no easy task.
Domini Gunn-Peim seems like the sort of woman you would want with you in a crisis. When Inside Housing meets her she’s cool, calm and collected, despite the fact that this is her first day back in the office after a week spent at the Chartered Institute of Housing conference in Harrogate. This morning she managed to fit in taking her five-year-old granddaughter to school before work, and now we’ve sprung an unexpected photo shoot on her. ‘I would have worn a suit,’ she laments of her casual checked shirt when we arrive at the CIH’s office in Coventry. But there’s no drama - she happily smiles for the camera anyway.
Ms Gunn-Peim joined the CIH just two months ago as its new director of public health and vulnerable communities - a role which looks set to test her calm-in-a-crisis persona as she battles to maintain the profile of Supporting People services as government spend on SP is slashed by 11.5 per cent to £6 billion over the next four years.
She is well-qualified for the job having spent the past 10 years as national lead on vulnerable communities at the soon-to-be defunct Audit Commission.
Ms Gunn-Peim is a potentially influential advocate, then, for the contribution housing can make to community well-being. So what are her priorities in her new role at the CIH and how does she think the sector, not to mention its services and tenants, will fare now it is no longer subject to outside inspection?
Ms Gunn-Peim is clear that her first priority is to bring the vital links between housing and health to the attention of housing providers and government ministers alike.
She is aware that housing is not at the top of the political agenda but while she’s not into politician-bashing, she is positive about the potential she has in her new job to push the work done by the sector to the forefront of the public agenda.
‘Housing is incredibly important, but for so many people it’s not a concern,’ she says. ‘What we need is a really good story line on Eastenders or Coronation Street and then you could start to get it into the public consciousness,’ she laughs.
While it may not be a mainstream TV storyline yet, social housing tenants are already concerned about government cuts to housing and health, she says.
‘They read all the stories in the press and in the media about constraints on public spending and there’s tangible fear: people are actually very frightened about what the housing care and support offer is going to be to support them through old age,’ Ms Gunn-Peim explains.
This fear is likely to have been amplified earlier this week when the results of the Dilnot Commission into care funding were published.
Then, of course, there are growing concerns in the sector as the cuts to the Supporting People budget begin to bite. With the removal of the ring fence in April 2009, councils that are already strapped for cash can dip into the pot to shore up other services.
Ms Gunn-Peim is fearful of the impact this will have on some of the most vulnerable people in society. ‘It’s really very concerning the number of older people I’ve spoken to in sheltered housing who have picked up that local authorities are doing options appraisals around their sheltered housing provision,’ she states with feeling.
‘The cuts are almost inevitable given the financial constraints on local authorities and public services generally,’ she continues. ‘My concern is that the level of consideration, planning and risk analysis that’s gone into how the cuts have been made could have been done with much more thought and care in some areas.’
Government cuts and reform are not all bad news for social housing care and support providers, however.
Ms Gunn-Peim thinks plans to overhaul the NHS present a golden opportunity for landlords to shape the way healthcare is delivered. She is keen to highlight the possibility of more GPs working directly with housing providers on the new health and well-being boards outlined in the Health and Social Care Bill. These boards will be made up of local representatives and will help decide how and where around £60 billion of the £100 billion annual NHS budget is spent.
‘Our argument is that people don’t live in hospitals and they don’t live in GP surgeries and the biggest impact on the quality of their lives is actually their homes or having a home,’ she says. ‘I want to invite people to take part in helping us develop a coherent and accessible housing, health and social care offer. There are some really good GPs, but most still see a medical model of well-being. What we need is a social model of what health and wellbeing needs, and housing is a key determinant in that.’
Inevitably, we move on to the potentially tricky subject of the demise of her previous employer - the Audit Commission. Communities secretary Eric Pickles announced the scrapping of the commission last August in a move designed to save £50 million. The private sector will take on the commission’s auditing role while tenants will scrutinise their landlords through intitiavies such as tenant panels.
While Ms Gunn-Peim would clearly rather focus on her future than her past, she does say it’s ‘fascinating talking to people about [it closing down] because it is very much [a case of] you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’.
The role of the Audit Commission as a regulator will be missed, she says. ‘It’s not a question of [me] defending the status quo because inspection had to change and was going to change,’ she explains. ‘Now what the coalition government has put in place is a structure that has the potential to replicate certain aspects, like tenant scrutiny panels,’ she continues, sounding somewhat dubious about their likely success.
Housing minister Grant Shapps has pledged £535,000 for a training programme to help tenants set up and run the panels, but Ms Gunn-Peim does not seem to think it is enough. ‘I worry that central government has not fully recognised the resources that are needed to build capacity and skills with and for local people to enable them to deliver the sort of scrutiny that they’re being asked to deliver,’ she says calmly, but with eyes shining.
Helping the vulnerable
Now though, her attention is on the needs of vulnerable people, an area in which Roger Jarman, former head of housing at the Audit Commission and a colleague of Ms Gunn-Peim when she worked there, says she has a great deal of experience.
‘She was preeminent in terms of managing the Supporting People inspections programme at the Audit Commission,’ he says. ‘It was a five-year inspection programme and she had a massive amount of influence in how it was conducted.
‘With the unring-fencing of the Supporting People budget… It’s a real challenge for her to ensure that SP maintains its profile and that authorities continue to support vulnerable people and their housing need.’
On this Ms Gunn-Peim has hit the ground running, already speaking out about cases which highlight the importance of the relationship between housing and care. Just last week she commented to Inside Housing on the case of three-year-old Ryan Lovell-Hancox who died at the hands of his childminders at their supported living flat in Wolverhampton. A serious case review published at the end of last month criticised Wolverhampton Council for not monitoring the supported living contractor Shaftesbury Young People’s Project more closely.
‘[The case] serves to demonstrate that the risks of not understanding and recognising the importance of high-quality housing-related support are too high. We must act now to make sure that we do everything in our power to minimise the likelihood of future tragedies,’ she says.
The number of people who need help and support is likely to increase when the government’s plans to scrap security of tenure at the end of the year, warns Ms Gunn-Peim. ‘Changes to tenancies in social housing are likely to result in an even higher percentage of social housing tenants being vulnerable… Everybody should be concerned at the moment because certainly the structure the Audit Commission inspection programme provided about reporting performance needs to be replaced by something that is at least as transparent,’ she says, returning to the subject of her former employer. ‘How will that whistleblowing take place [with the commission gone]?,’ she asks.
This is something that Ms Gunn-Peim will be watching closely in her new role, which she sees as an opportunity to push forward subjects she’s been concerned about since the beginning of her career. Before joining the Audit Commission in December 2000 Ms Gunn-Peim worked for Leicester Council in the private sector renewal and urban regeneration department. Before that she was a support worker for charity Save the Children. ‘I became very aware of the impact that poor housing had on people’s health, particularly children’s physical health,’ she explains.
‘It’s not just about the bricks and mortar and what they do to you, poor housing is very bad for your health in terms of the physical environment but it’s also the security around housing and the impact that had on people’s mental health,’ she summarises, as the interview draws to a close.
Not one to be cowed by the task ahead of her, Ms Gunn-Peim is confident in her own - and the housing sector’s - ability to tackle problems head on. A crisis is coming, she warns, but she might be just the woman to represent housing and handle it when it hits.
Domini Gunn-Peim on the Dilnot Commission report
The Dilnot Commission this week recommended the government implement a £35,000 cap on the cost of care to prevent people selling their homes to pay for treatment and care in later life. Costs in excess of the cap should be met by the taxpayer.
‘The recommendations are welcome and lay the basis for a system where people will have a degree of certainty about their future care costs,’ says Ms Gunn-Peim. ‘However, we are keen to see how the costs of care and support for people living in their own homes, including sheltered housing and extra care, will be calculated, and how these can be used to contribute to preventative services such as adaptations. The risk is that individuals could miss out on more flexible, small-scale and innovative solutions, which can reduce the need for increased domiciliary care or prevent even more expensive residential care later.
‘In reforming the funding of social care, we urge the government to follow Dilnot’s recommendation to review the scope for improving the integration of adult social care into a wider care and support system. This must include housing and housing support providers, and could help drive a more preventative approach, incentivised through funding arrangements.’