Housing policy, and how we discuss it, is dominated by arguments about supply and demand as nationally we look to address a housing affordability crisis. But this crowds out debate about housing in the round.
From decarbonising our housing aiming for our net zero aspirations, to high-quality housing providing for health and wellbeing, and the vital care and support that transitional supported housing provides to some of the most vulnerable, we are simply overlooking the wider role of housing.
At IPPR North, we are exploring England’s broader housing problems and turning attentions to the people and detail behind the quantum of stock. That is why we have recently published research detailing one subsector called transitional supported housing, and its role and challenges.
Transitional supported housing provides housing, care, and support to vulnerable people who need help on their journey towards living independently. It houses 189,500 people at any given time – a diverse group of people in a time of need, including people who are rough sleepers, at risk of homelessness, fleeing domestic violence, suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, or experiencing mental health crises.
But this crucial area of housing has been overlooked by successive governments and when they have paid some – scant – attention, policymaking has been erratic and short term. Since 2010, there have been no fewer than six different proposals by government to fundamentally change the sector, including proposing to abolish housing benefit and sector-wide rent caps. This has resulted in little change other than outcry from supported housing providers and ultimately government backtracking.
Not only have many of these proposals shown a lack of understanding about the sector by government, but there is no clear or systematic data collection to inform understanding. Since a landmark review over four years ago, we have not known how many units there are, how many people are in need, or how to plan for the future of transitional supported housing – despite rising homelessness and rough sleeping.
This lack of understanding has provided little stability and given rise over time to significant fragmentation across the sector. This has been coupled with large cuts to local authority budgets chipping away at the sector’s viability by reducing funding for support services and preventing longer term commissioning cycles.
With little capacity for local authority oversight and no real national regulation, our research has highlighted further problems of quality in the unregulated private rental sector’s provision where complex financial relationships designed to extract profit from housing benefit have crept into the sector in recent years. With no clear definition in policy or regulation of ‘care and support’, provision is going largely unchecked.
Decreasing the private sector’s role and introducing a robust system of regulation built around a person-centred understanding of transitional supported housing is overdue to give people living in the sector the confidence, security, and care they need with clear lines of accountability.
But regulation alone is not enough. Growing funding pressure has made it exceptionally difficult for housing associations to continue providing transitional supported housing. Meanwhile, the lack of long-term, dependable planning by government has restricted access to capital for housing associations and a growing number of charities providing transitional supported housing. This is stymying capacity.
Unless we act now, a shortfall of over 46,000 places by 2024/25 is on the horizon, leaving many people unable to access the support they need and driving avoidable demand on the NHS and other public services.
We need a strategic approach – at national and local levels – to provide high-quality support in high-quality homes in a less fragmented system where people have the ability to move on into affordable and social housing when they are ready. By identifying need and appropriate levels of funding, stability can be provided over the longer term, building capacity in this vital sector and helping many people to achieve better lives.
Marcus Johns is a research fellow at the think tank IPPR North.