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May 10, 2023

The evidence for national standards and better data for supported housing

Helen Hodgson

Supported housing is accommodation that is provided alongside support, supervision or care to help people with specific needs to live as independently as possible in the community. This includes people at risk of or who have experienced homelessness, people with a learning or physical disability, and people recovering from drug or alcohol dependence. Our report sets out the three categories of supported housing; short-term (e.g. hostels); specialised (e.g. long-term housing for people needing a high level of care) and sheltered housing (e.g. long-term housing for older people with minimal or extra care needs).

Supported housing provides much-needed support and accommodation to vulnerable people, who often have complex and multiple needs, when they need it most. However, there are several known shortcomings. Some of these issues are specific to the type of supported housing, such as the poor quality and poor value for money of some short-term accommodation and the support provided. Stakeholders have noted that gaps in oversight and regulation allow some landlords to make large profits while providing poor quality supported housing. Demand for supported housing is largely unknown and the government is not expected to meet its targets for building new supported homes. There are also problems caused by how Housing Benefit funds supported housing and the supply of the more costly specialist housing for people with high needs. These shortcomings not only risk poor value for money but can also lead to poor outcomes for residents, many of whom are vulnerable and at risk of homelessness. 

Problems with supported housing, and most notably the subset of accommodation that is exempt from locally set housing benefit caps, has had plenty of attention from stakeholders, charities, press and parliamentarians, including the Committee for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ (the Committee) 2022 inquiry into exempt accommodation. The Committee didn’t mince its words, concluding that some residents’ experiences of exempt accommodation were 'beyond disgraceful'. The Committee also noted the lack of regulation and governance of providers, and ‘the exploitation of the system by people seeking to make profit from it’. 

The evidence we collected for our report shows that responsibilities for supported housing are spread across central government, most notably the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and no one organisation is fully responsible for overseeing and coordinating the supply, quality, and funding of supported housing. Local authorities have a role in overseeing supported housing in their areas and have powers to inspect properties, but some have told DLUHC that their limited resources constrain the number of inspections they can do. Local authorities can specify the level of supervision and support they expect when they commission accommodation, but non-commissioned housing providers do not have to supply anything other than ‘more than minimal’ care, support or supervision.

Approaches to regulation, and the regulations that they enforce, vary across regulatory bodies, with few inspecting properties meaning some providers of supported housing have less scrutiny. For example, the Regulator of Community Interest Companies is ‘light touch’ and mainly focuses on whether registered members meet the criteria for community interest companies. The Regulator of Social Housing assesses providers’ performance overall. Providers of personal care must register with the Care Quality Commission, which does not inspect the quality of the accommodation and focuses on personal care.

Central government has limited national data on supported housing. DWP and DLUHC do not routinely collect data at a national level on the numbers of all people in supported housing or the numbers of units of supported housing.

We found that some providers can charge high rents with varying levels of care, supervision or support because this accommodation is exempt from locally set Housing Benefit cap, and there is no clear definition of the care, supervision or support to be provided. Some areas, such as Birmingham, have seen increasing numbers of landlords who circumvent the regulations, enabling them to profit by providing costly sub-standard housing with little or no support, supervision or care.

Poor quality exempt accommodation can also have a negative impact on the resident’s quality of life and may not give vulnerable people the environment or support that they need. There have been reports of people with a history of substance misuse being housed with drug dealers, and of survivors of domestic abuse being housed with perpetrators of such abuse. Hull City Council reported to the Committee that in the 345 supported housing units it inspected between April 2019 and January 2022, it found 323 hazards classed as a serious and immediate risk to a person’s health and safety. 

DLUHC are aware of the issues with supported housing and have some actions in place to improve the system. These include pilot schemes to help local authorities deal with problems in their areas. Additionally, the DLUHC, along with DWP and The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), set up the Supported Housing Improvement Board to try to address problems with quality, value for money, supply and viability. Additionally, the new Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill is due to come into force by this summer. The Bill, introduced by Bob Blackman MP, will develop national standards, require local authorities to review supported housing in their areas, and enable them to create licensing schemes for exempt accommodation. Overall, the UK government supports the Bill, but DLUHC has yet to establish how it will support local authorities to implement these new duties, although it has committed to a full consultation.

Local authorities told us that whilst they are mostly positive about the changes the Bill will bring, they have noted some shortcomings. The Bill aims to give a definition of support for supported housing and will give local authorities a framework to deal with non-compliant providers, but it does not go far enough in creating a rigid regulatory system and will not create an inspection regime.

Helen Hodgson is Director for Housing, Communities and Local Government Value for Money studies at the National Audit Office

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