While we welcome the measures in the Bill, we have significant concerns about the capacity of councils’ housing teams to undertake all of the new responsibilities that are proposed. It will be vital for Government to fully fund the measures for them to be effective.
- The LGA broadly welcomes the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill, which would allow local authorities to better regulate the quality of exempt supported accommodation through a licensing scheme and enforcement of a new set of ‘National Supported Housing standards.’
- Supported housing combines accommodation with support services. Good-quality supported housing fulfils an important role in helping people with additional needs to live independently, as well as providing short-term and transitionary housing that prevents people becoming homeless or rough sleeping. This includes people who are homeless and need additional mental health or substance misuse support, people fleeing domestic abuse, prison leavers, care leavers and people leaving national asylum seeker services.
- Most exempt accommodation is commissioned by local authorities, is delivered by reputable organisations, and is subject to local authority oversight through contractual mechanisms and is of good quality. However, as we highlighted to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, councils have been concerned for some time that an increasing number of exempt accommodation providers are falling short in providing good quality, personalised support for people in vulnerable circumstances. In particular, issues have been identified with providers (for example, charitable or private sector organisations) who deliver supported housing that is not commissioned or approved by a local authority (for people who may need support but may not be eligible for council funded social care) as there are no contractual mechanisms for councils to quality assure and monitor standards.
- Increased demand for housing for single people – combined with the funding model for supported housing, outdated Housing Benefit regulations, a lack of local oversight and a weak national regulatory framework – have created the conditions for a small minority of unscrupulous non-commissioned providers to enter the market to exploit the higher rents that can be charged for exempt accommodation. Supported housing is exempt from the standard caps on the amount of housing benefit people can claim for their rent, meaning landlords can charge higher rents which will be covered entirely by housing benefit.
- Councils have identified a trend of landlords moving into providing exempt supported housing, primarily as a high return investment model. This issue has grown significantly over recent years, resulting in an increase in vulnerable people being housed in poor-quality houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs) with unsuitable or no additional support provided. These developments have had a significant, detrimental impact on vulnerable people who have been housed in poor-quality accommodation without the support they need, as well being poor value for money for the public purse.
- This proliferation of poor-quality supported housing has, in part, been enabled by gaps in the regulatory system, which the Bill seeks to address. At present, councils have limited levers to control the quality or supply of non-commissioned exempt accommodation in their communities. Most exempt accommodation is delivered by registered providers (who are registered with and regulated by the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH)). Over the last decade, registered providers of social housing, including supported housing, have not been subject to proactive regulation or inspection by the RSH, while they are also exempt from HMO licensing rules. Family housing that has exempt status is exempt from some council powers, including Article 4 Directions.
- In response to the growing issues in exempt supported housing the Government has run a pilot programme in five areas to test approaches to improving standards and enforcement in supported housing and introduced a National Statement of Expectations (NSE) for Supported Housing in 2020. However, they have not yet made moves to tighten up the regulatory and enforcement regime.
- The LGA have previously called for the introduction of an accreditation or licensing scheme, to better regulate standards of accommodation and care in supported housing. We therefore welcome measures in the Bill which would enable the Secretary of State to introduce licensing schemes. This would make providers’ exempt accommodation status subject to council approval and conditional on meeting a good quality of accommodation and care, giving councils greater powers to manage provision in their area and drive-up standards.
- Introducing a requirement for planning permission for exempt supported accommodation would help to further strengthen local oversight of new accommodation in an area, by enabling a local planning authority to take into account the need for supported exempt accommodation, as outlined in its supported housing strategy, when deciding whether to grant planning permission. We would welcome clarification from Government as to why exempted supported accommodation cannot be specified as a separate use-class now, to maximise local oversight of provision.
- While we welcome the measures in the Bill, we have significant concerns about the capacity of councils’ housing teams to undertake all of the new responsibilities that are proposed. It will be vital for Government to fully fund the measures for them to be effective. The requirement to produce a Local Supported Housing Strategy, to gather and share information, and to operate licensing schemes will count as new burdens and will need to be funded as such. We would welcome clarification on whether funding for this is included in the £20 million announced as a part of the Bill. Even where new burdens funding is provided, there may still be challenges in terms of ensuring sufficient staffing, particularly given existing workforce challenges.
- Nobody should be afraid of being penalised for reporting poor quality housing. We are therefore pleased that the Bill would ensure that a person leaving supported exempted accommodation will not be treated as intentionally homelessness, if the reason for leaving relates to a poor standard of accommodation, care, support or supervision.
Supported Housing Advisory Panel
- The Secretary of State will be required to appoint an Advisory Panel.
- The panel will represent the interests of certain stakeholders including registered providers; local housing authorities; social services authorities and residents.
- The purpose of the panel is to provide information and advice on issues related to supported exempt accommodation, including anything which the Panel views could have a significant impact on the provision or regulation of supported exempt accommodation.
- Councils want to ensure that all residents living in supported accommodation have the security of a safe and well-maintained home, and that they are provided with good quality, personalised support. Therefore, an Advisory Panel, which allows the sector, including residents, to proactively inform the Secretary of State and other bodies on a range of issues in relation to supported exempt accommodation is a welcome step. It is good that the Panel will comprise of a range of stakeholders in the sector. We believe this measure will enable residents to better hold their supported housing provider to account.
- We want to work with the Government to ensure that the Panel is a success and to assist with developing a term of reference.
- It is vital that the membership comprises a diverse range of councils to ensure that issues across the sector are represented.
- To enable the Advisory Panel to be as effective as possible, consideration should be given to including them as one of the bodies identified in Clause10 (3) in relation to the sharing of information on supported exempt accommodation.
Local Supported Housing Strategies
- The Bill will introduce a new duty on local housing authorities to carry out a review of the supported exempt accommodation in their districts and, in light of that review, publish a “supported housing strategy” for the provision of supported exempt accommodation. As supported housing strategy must assess the current availability of supported exempt accommodation in a district; the need for supported exempt accommodation in a district, and such other matters as may be specified by the Secretary of State in regulations.
- The provision of exempt accommodation should be driven by local need. Most councils’ concerns about non-commissioned exempt accommodation would be addressed by establishing council control over all referrals into exempt accommodation supported housing in their area, for example through a single referral ‘hub’ involving county councils and district councils working closely together in two-tier areas.
- Some exempt accommodation is commissioned or approved by councils or other public sector organisations. Quality is monitored and managed through contractual arrangements. While it is possible for non-commissioned providers to work proactively and positively with councils to ensure that good quality accommodation and support is provided, feedback from councils suggest that most of their concerns are about non-commissioned lease-based provision.
- People can be placed in non-commissioned exempt accommodation through a variety of referral routes from multiple agencies, including self-referrals. There is no requirement to notify the council in advance, so the council is unable to check whether the accommodation and support are suitable. Councils do scrutinise Housing Benefit claims for exempt accommodation, but they do not have effective powers to challenge unreasonably high rent claims and few levers to challenge concerns about care and support by an uncooperative non-commissioned provider unless there are safeguarding issues.
- Having oversight of all supported housing provision within their area, would help councils understand what provision exists and ensure new provision is established to meet local need. It would also tackle issues such as preventing ‘self-referrals’ or providers giving a home to people from other council areas without sharing vital information.
- Councils are already statutorily obliged to have a homelessness and rough sleeping strategy, and the Bill will require a separate supported housing strategy which may cover some of the same issues.
- We would welcome clarification on whether there will be a requirement for this new strategy to be produced as a separate document. A separate document would be particularly burdensome in local authorities with small numbers of supported housing units in their area. Consideration should be given as to how existing processes and strategies can be used to assess exempt accommodation needs at a local level, rather than the development of a whole new strategy and the associated requirements.
- Any new requirements on local authorities will need to be appropriately funded in line with the new burdens doctrine. Even where new burdens funding is provided, there are likely to be challenges in terms of ensuring sufficient staffing, particularly given existing workforce challenges. We will want to work with government and the sector to understand the scale of these challenges and identify potential solutions.
- We would welcome clarification on the required involvement of supported housing accommodation providers in the development of any strategy.
National Supported Housing Standards
- This will give the Secretary of State new powers to prepare and publish “National Supported Housing Standards” for England.
- This will set minimum standards for the type or condition of premises used for the provision of supported exempt accommodation or the provision of care, support or supervision.
- We are broadly supportive of the introduction of a set of National Supported Housing Standards. This will build on the work of the Government’s Supported housing: national statement of expectations which set out recommendations for standards in the accommodation element of supported housing. Whilst the majority of supported housing providers demonstrate a high level of commitment and high standards, a set of national standards will help to drive up quality across the sector.
- We look forward to working with the Government to develop the Standards to ensure that they are fit-for-purpose and deliver genuine improvement in the quality of accommodation and provision of care, support or supervision.
- We would welcome clarity on whether the Standards will be specific to non-commissioned supported exempt accommodation or will apply more broadly to all supported housing providers.
- An exempt accommodation provider can set up and largely operate outside of the regulatory framework with neither councils, the Care Quality Commission (unless social care is commissioned) nor the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) having sufficient oversight powers. This regulatory gap is a further incentive for the minority of providers who use exempt accommodation status to maximise income while delivering poor quality services for their residents.
Clauses 4 and 5
- Clause 4 would give the Secretary of State power to make regulations requiring support exempt accommodation providers to obtain and comply with a license issued by the relevant local housing authority.
- Clause 5 sets out the range of issues which licensing regulations may cover, including: enforcement, consequences of non-compliance, exemptions and fees.
- We welcome these measures as we have previously called for the introduction of an accreditation or licensing scheme that is linked to a quality standard and is reflective of the specific support needs of tenants.
- A licensing scheme would make providers’ exempt accommodation status subject to council approval and conditional on meeting a good quality of accommodation and care, giving councils greater powers to manage provision in their area and drive-up standards.
- It is important that the licensing or accreditation scheme is proportionate, while still ensuring high-quality provision. There is a concern that if the scheme is too costly or burdensome, it could inadvertently push smaller, good-quality providers out of the market, which could lead to an increase in homelessness.
- Managing a new licensing scheme will place an additional burden on local authorities. To ensure any scheme is effective and sustainable, local authorities should have the flexibility to set fees locally so that they are reflective of actual operation costs of running the scheme. Initial set-up costs will also need to be met by new burdens funding. We would welcome working with Government to develop a costed model for strengthened local oversight and enforcement, building on the work of the pilots, and the long-term savings it could achieve for councils and Government.
- We would also welcome clarity on whether new licensing schemes would need to be signed off by the Secretary of State, as is implied by clauses 4(b) and (c) in the Bill. Requiring individual local authorities to seek Secretary of State approval for licensing schemes in their area will cause unnecessary bureaucracy.
- Places a duty on the Secretary of State to consult statutory consultees before exercising the power to make licensing regulations.
- The statutory consultees listed are: Each local housing authority in England, each social services authority in England; the National Housing Federation, the Regulator of Social Housing.
- We are pleased that local authorities, as the main delivery partners in this legislation, will be a statutory consultee. This will be vital to ensuring the reforms are effective and deliverable.
- This places a duty on the Secretary of State to review the effect of licensing requirements within three years of regulations being made.
- Following such a review, the Secretary of State would be required to consider whether to specify exempt supported accommodation as a use-class which would require planning in certain circumstances.
- A requirement for planning permission for exempt supported accommodation would help to strengthen local oversight of new accommodation in an area.
- This would enable a local planning authority to take into account the need for supported exempt accommodation, as outlined in its supported housing strategy, in deciding whether to grant planning permission.
- We would welcome clarification from government as to why exempted supported accommodation cannot be specified as a separate use-class now, alongside the other measures proposed in the Bill, to maximise local oversight of provision.
- This would ensure that where someone leaves exempted supported accommodation due to poor conditions or care, and the standards within the accommodation do not meet the National Supported Housing Standards, they will not be classed as being intentionally homeless.
We support this measure which also aligns with proposals in the Renters’ Reform White Paper and homelessness legislation which seeks to ensure that households are not penalised for reporting or leaving poor quality housing. At present, someone is classed as being intentionally homeless if they are assessed to have deliberately done something to cause them to lose their home or it would have been reasonable for them to continue to occupy their home. Councils have fewer duties to support those who are found to be intentionally homeless: if the applicant is in priority need, they still have a duty to provide temporary accommodation and help to find a new home, but have a reduced duty to provide longer-term accommodation.