Public Services Management: Having a care for the welfare of council tenants: Paul Gosling on housing managers' fears over government plans to restrict spending

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The Independent Online
CARE in the community is imposing an extra burden on housing managers, now forced to provide a range of housing-related welfare services. Yet those welfare services may end as a result of government plans to limit expenditure from local authority housing revenue accounts.

Confusion was initially caused when the Court of Appeal decided in April last year that the London Borough of Ealing should not have charged some of the costs of warden-assisted accommodation to tenants who did not benefit. The Housing and Urban Development Bill going through Parliament will reinstate councils with the power they previously thought they had, to charge all such services against housing revenue accounts. But a Department of Environment (DoE) consultation paper warns that the Secretary of State may rescind this power - as the Bill will permit him to do - after local authority reorganisation.

Councils could be prevented from charging to the housing revenue account a number of housing welfare services, and allow only those services that are strictly related to housing management. Those listed in the DoE consultation paper as ineligible include general counselling, alarm schemes, and liaising with health services on behalf of a tenant. This worries many local authorities and housing managers. Paul Lautman, assistant secretary, housing, for the Association of District Councils, says: 'Our main concern is that when this is taken out of the housing revenue account the future of these services would be jeopardised. There is strong competition for resources from the general fund, and social services are struggling as it is to meet their commitments under care in the community. The Government starts from the premise that councils are no different from any private sector landlord, and they are not seen as having any social housing role, even though, quite rightly, housing associations are. The DoE has not seen the ramifications of its proposals.'

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities is equally worried. Matthew Warburton, its housing officer, says: 'We don't accept the DoE's way of distinguishing between a landlord and non-landlord role. The landlord task depends on the type of tenancy and accommodation: it is a nonsense to treat housing for the elderly the same as private flats for young, prosperous, single people.'

Welfare services for tenants affect not only the elderly, especially as the effects of care in the community are felt. David Clapham, a Reader at Glasgow University's Centre for Housing Research, says that his students, already housing managers, report that one-third of their time is spent on care-related work. 'They have to deal with debt counselling once tenants get into arrears; older people who can't get around the home but who can't get help from social services; alcoholism that can lead to neighbour disputes. My impression is that social services are concentrating on the most vulnerable people and ignoring those who need a lower level of support, who are left in their own homes until their needs get more acute.'

Jim Winter, assistant director of housing for the London Borough of Southwark, agrees that care in the community has led to new demands. 'There has been a marked shift. The pressure on health service budgets means that hospitals are not always able to give the level of support that we would like. This can lead to more pressure on housing management staff - more physical assaults, violence against others in hostels and on estates, or people who are lonely and depressed needing support. Our main requirement is to provide housing, but it is an element of our work to step into a breach, with alcoholics who are trying to dry out, or people on drugs. There are also responsibilities under the Children's Act: the theory is to put young people into a flat, but in our experience they often can't handle it. We sometimes want to get people into psychiatric hospitals, but there are no beds, so they get arrested and end up in prison. It is this movement from psychiatric hospitals into prison that worries us.'

Many in the housing association sector are also concerned, particularly that a current review of housing benefit could lead to all welfare services being ruled ineligible for housing benefit support. Ray Boycott, housing director at Bedfordshire Pilgrims Housing Association, says: 'We have concerns about one scenario that could lead to questions over housing benefit, which 70 per cent of our tenants receive - probably even more in our sheltered accommodation. We expect all our housing managers to be involved in debt counselling. If these posts were called into question then we would have difficulty in providing our services. It is too early to tell if there will be added difficulty with care in the community. There have been examples where people have been released from long-stay hospitals and we were not convinced that support was available. It caused problems for us, and for their neighbours.'

Associations such as Shape in Birmingham, which have appointed welfare officers, could be caused particular difficulty.

The fear of many housing workers is that unless welfare support comes out of the housing revenue account it will not be available elsewhere. Shaks Ghosh, senior policy adviser on supported housing for the National Federation of Housing Associations (NFHA), warns: 'People in social services have talked of massive cuts, but housing managers are saying 'Thank God' for the ring-fenced housing revenue account. Which means that the general fund is more vulnerable - if you are providing a housing service you want to be part of the housing revenue account. For some people you can't provide a bricks and mortar service without providing a welfare service as well. But the NFHA recognises housing funds should be spent on housing, and the Department of Health has got off lightly from its responsibilities for care in the community. Sometimes this government doesn't behave like a government - it's more like a series of departments without a comprehensive policy.'

Ms Ghosh warns that those who could suffer are not only the elderly and those released from long stay accommodation. 'A lot of hostel projects receive grant out of housing revenue accounts: for example women's refuges, night shelters and single homelessness projects. A lot of these projects could lose their funding.'