Following the recent announcement of funding awards for the Government's Next Steps Accommodation Programme (NSAP), Homes for Cathy has been catching up with members who have been involved in successful bids, to discover more about their plans to tackle homelessness. This is their interview with Martin Hancock, CEO of BCHA, one of the founding members of Homes for Cathy.
How did the pandemic impact on homelessness in your region?
BCHA works mainly in the Bournemouth, Christchurch, Poole (BCP) area but also in Dorset, South Somerset and across Devon. In terms of homelessness in BCP area, the COVID situation highlighted a much bigger problem. Whereas previously, there was a street count of around 70 to 80 people rough sleeping, during COVID the local authority suddenly needed to house another 200 people who were ‘hidden homeless’, sofa surfing or living in insecure accommodation – essentially people not living in homes of their own. It became clear that there was a huge demand for additional accommodation in the main area in which we operate, but also to a lesser extent in places like Plymouth and Exeter.
Tell us more about the background to your NSAP bid…
The criteria for the bid was that it had to be co-produced and fortunately in the BCP area we were already part of a Homelessness Reduction Board set up by the local authority in 2019, involving a number of additional homelessness working groups. The local authority was able to use these as a vehicle to get people round the table very quickly to start work on a bid. The COVID situation really helped to consolidate a partnership working approach, which up until that point had only been in the early stages. The Plymouth Alliance already existed around Homelessness services so helped in that area.
What particular challenges did you encounter?
For this first round of NSAP funding, there wasn’t a lot of time to put anything together. It was the middle of August and we had around two weeks to turn something around. This put huge pressure on councils, who had to work extremely hard to pull everything together, define exactly what they wanted and whether to bid for the short-term or longer-term programme. BCHA put in a proposal for the short-term programme with an ambitious proposal to deliver 40 units in the BCP area, of which 25 were agreed by MHCLG, while BCP Council put in for 20 properties, of which 15 were approved. We’re also delivering 17 more properties across Plymouth, Exeter and Dorset, with funding for 42 units in total. All by 31 March 2021 which is another big challenge of course but our teams are well on the way to achieving this outcome.
One of the most challenging aspects of the process was that the bid required us to submit a lot of detail about the actual properties. We picked street properties that we’d identified through discussions with local private developers, but we could only give the developers a verbal agreement until the funding was approved.
In our case, 15 of the units we identified are in a brand new block, and a further five are refurbished properties that we negotiated with another developer. The pressure is now on, particularly with the 15 new builds, and we’re going to be going to the wire to get the properties finished for 31 March 2021.
Another issue is that this all happened at a time when the property market was quite buoyant, with government initiatives such as help to buy and no stamp duty resulting in a big rush of buyers – it is credit to our development team that we were able to negotiate competitive prices without being able to put formal contracts in place until now.
Did your bid involve revenue funding?
Yes, across the full bid, we were allocated funding for the equivalent of five workers across the 42 properties, essentially a one to 10 ratio of intensive work, which was a big positive. The aim is for long-term stability for the cohort that needs much more intensive work. The plan is for the newly appointed meaningful occupation support workers to develop a personalised programme for each tenant, coaching around confidence and self-esteem and upskilling them in areas such as IT to ensure they are not only ‘work ready’ but also ‘tenancy ready’ and can sustain a long-term tenancy.
While we recognise there is an expectation in this funding for people to move on from this housing, we would hope that if they are settled and haven’t been housed for many years they will be able to stay in the property for some time, otherwise there’s a danger you move people on and their tenancy fails.
What were the key learnings?
The NSAP bid was an ideal opportunity to help end rough sleeping and achieve more on the social rent model; we felt that if you want people to be able to move away from rough sleeping, gain employment and be self-sufficient, the rent needs to be truly affordable. Many of the jobs in the BCP area are in services such as hospitality, retail and care and therefore often around the national living and minimum wage levels, so you can’t charge someone £150 per week rent. Fortunately, the capital grant awarded is sufficient for BCHA to make a social rent model work, as requiring only another £12k grant above the affordable rent levels along with extra capital funding from ourselves.
The bid only happened because of people putting in a lot of time and energy. In addition, because of the very short timeframe, we also had to rely on a lot of goodwill locally. It has shown us that it is possible to work together and make things happen. However, equally, it's important to recognise who is best to deliver on certain aspects of a bid. You also need to be pretty agile, as our experience shows. Co-production is great, although there was a lot of time spent on co-ordination - direct contact with registered providers such as ourselves could maybe have speeded things up a little, given the time pressures.
What positives have you taken away from the process?
Having been through the process, it does feel possible to put an end to rough sleeping, although it is going to take more than 18 months. The advisor team at MHCLG is clearly committed to making it happen and it is encouraging that they keen to hear feedback from housing associations such as ourselves, as the recent Homes for Cathy workshop with colleagues from the Ministry's Rough Sleeping Unit proved.
The fact that we are already involved in homelessness as an organisation means that we could respond quickly, as the pathways were already in place, something that is underpinned by the Homes for Cathy commitments.
The process proves the value of having homelessness strategies in place, not just housing strategies, and the need to foster a more joined up approach to housing ambition and tackling homelessness.