Patrick Thompson writes in Inside Housing
Supporting tenants to maintain their independence at home is a vital service that Housing Associations provide. The funding provided by Supporting People brings significant benefit to around 19,000 people every year. And while the sector and beneficiaries have long recognised the value of this programme, a recent study by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has quantified the benefit, finding that that for every £1 invested in the Supporting People Programme, £5.71 of social value is created.
The ring-fenced £72.8m Supporting People grant programme is designed to help vulnerable individuals and families to live independently, by provide housing support services. The programme is vital in supporting older people, those with physical and learning disabilities and to address homelessness. It also provides essential support for other vulnerable groups, including those with mental health concerns, looked after-children, those with drug and alcohol issues, and victims of domestic abuse.
In 2015 NICVA undertook research which calculated that every £1 spent on the SP services saves the public purse £1.90. This rose to £11.18 for victims of Domestic Violence. Those savings are made because of the housing support being provided, which helps prevent problems or escalation that can result in hospitalisation, homelessness or premature admission to residential or nursing care. All of these are more costly to the public purse than the housing support provided through Supporting People.
In the context of housing, the latest study notes that Supporting People really does help people to live independently. 9,925 service users were supported to maintain their tenancy and 77% of service users indicated that they were supported to improve their ability to live independently, and 53% of service users indicated that they were supported to secure long-term accommodation. NIFHA believes that every household should have access to a good quality, affordable and sustainable home that is appropriate for its needs and it is Supporting People that helps provide the extra layer of support to meet those needs.
So why then, given the clear success of the programme, has the budget remained static for 15 years?
15 years of a static budget has left providers with a real-terms cut in funding of 30% and service providers in the sector is now at breaking point. Budgets are already stretched, and rising inflation is putting further pressure on the sector. There is no doubt that Supporting People providers are gravely concerned at rising costs, combined with the frozen budget.
NIFHA members have reported that well over half of their Supporting People services are running at a deficit, with more expected to be in deficit by the end of the year. These valued services are being propped up by housing associations own reserves and the continued support of their Boards, who see the value in what Supporting People provides.
But they caution that the situation cannot continue. Energy costs have risen by up to 92% for some providers and agency staff costs have risen by 31% at a time when housing associations cannot afford to match pay levels in other health and care sectors, resulting in recruitment and retention becoming increasingly difficult. 15 years of static budgets have had their toll on providers but the current economic challenges are pushing them to the brink.
It took many years of lobbying to highlight the value of Supporting People and the need to continue to invest in it to the NI Assembly and this was finally acknowledged in the draft 3-year Stormont budget which included a £10.9m uplift over the next three years, but the current stalemate in Stormont means that the budget was never approved and no new funding has been made available to meet even the current rising costs of delivery, never mind rebalancing the inflationary losses of the last 15 years.
This funding crisis is real and it is having an impact on services. There is a greater demand for Supporting People than can currently be provided and the long-term view is that the demand will continue to grow. But with no new funding to help underpin current and future need, providers believe that services will cease to be viable and service users will suffer.
We know how successful Supporting People has been, but we believe that services are at breaking point due to a lack of long-term investment in the programme. NIFHA is calling on the NI Executive to provide urgent funding to meet the immediate costs pressures, to help bring front line staff pay back in line with other health and care services and to secure new funding to reverse the long-term inflationary erosion of the core budget. Let’s keep on supporting people. Its value to the community cannot be argued.
Read the NIHE Social Return on Investment report here
Read the NICVA Study here
The Financial Benefits of the Supporting People Programme in Northern Ireland | NICVA