danscorerThe government’s plans to cap Housing Benefit rates for the supported housing sector risk creating a housing crisis for people with learning disabilities, a charity has warned.

In last year’s Autumn statement, the government announced its intention to cap Housing Benefit rates for the social housing sector at the same level as the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) from 2018 onwards. In a further announcement today [September 15], while the start date for this has been delayed, the policy remains, and some details of a new funding model were announced – but one that would keep funding at current levels.

This has been criticised by learning disability charity Mencap, which warned that the supported housing sector will struggle to keep up with demand, and could create a housing postcode lottery and compromise the ability of people with learning disabilities to live independently.

In a statement, Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, confirmed that the application of the LHA rates to social rents policy has been deferred for a year for supported housing until 2019/20. “At this point we will bring in a new funding model which will ensure that the sector continues to be funded at current levels, taking into account the effect of government policy on social sector rents. 

“It is our intention that from 2019/20 core rent and service charges will be funded through Housing Benefit or Universal Credit up to the level of the applicable LHA rate. This will apply to all those living in supported accommodation from this date. I can also confirm that the Shared Accommodation Rate will not apply to people living in the supported housing sector, in recognition of the particular challenges this would have placed upon them.

For costs above the level of the LHA rate, Government will devolve in England an amount of funding for disbursement locally. In Wales and Scotland, an equivalent amount will be provided and the respective administrations will decide how best to allocate it.

In England, funding will be devolved to local authorities, which will provide ‘top up’ funding to providers where necessary. This will also give local authorities an enhanced role in commissioning supported housing in their area and allow them to have a more coherent approach to commissioning for needs across housing, health and social care, Green added.

As different types of supported housing provision and services are commissioned by different bodies locally, such as clinical commissioning groups, the government will look to ensure these bodies can access funding, and will work with relevant agencies and government departments in the design of the fund to ensure opportunities for local agencies to collaborate are maximised.

The top-up fund will be ring-fenced, and the amount of funding will be set on the basis of current projections of future need. “This will also help to provide certainty for providers that reductions in funding via the benefits system can be met elsewhere as well as to give greater assurance to developers of new supported housing supply,” said Green. “We will also consult on appropriate safeguards to ensure that this funding continues to support vulnerable people and promotes supply of supported housing. We will also consider what level of new burdens funding would be appropriate to enable local authorities to fulfil their new role.”

However, this policy is already creating problems in the supported housing sector. Since it was announced 80% of planned supported housing projects have been put on hold and 40% of existing supported accommodation schemes have been at risk of closure, according to figures from the National Housing Federation.

Dan Scorer (pictured), head of policy at Mencap, said: “Today’s announcement is at odds with what the sector has been repeatedly calling for, and risks undermining disabled people’s right to have a choice over where they call home.

“Whilst we welcome the further exemption of supported housing from the LHA cap until 2019/20, it was widely expected the government would today secure a sustainable future for the sector. Instead the proposal risks adding to a growing housing crisis for people with a learning disability who need the safety and security that supported housing offers.

“The system is currently under huge strain, with local authorities struggling to add the minimum of 1,000 new supported housing units required every year for people with a learning disability to keep up with demand. The fact that 80% of supported housing building projects have been put on hold since the initial announcement in autumn 2015 also creates difficulties for the government’s own agenda to move people out of assessment and treatment units, like Winterbourne View, and back into their community. 

“It’s unclear how this proposal of funding for supported housing via a localised pot will be able to keep up with this demand, and we fear it will create a postcode lottery causing anxiety and uncertainty for those desperately in need of the safety and security supported housing offers. It will further undermine the right of people with a learning disability to have their reasonable housing needs met. 

“We are also deeply concerned to learn that the 1% rent reduction will now apply to supported housing going forward. This is adding an unexpected and additional strain on a sector struggling to provide much needed housing for people with a learning disability. 

“The government’s proposals will compromise the right for people with a learning disability to live independently, and must be reconsidered urgently.”