Latest at Inside Housing: Housing association reviews contracts as council cuts bite

08/08/2014 | By Jess McCabe

Budget cuts prompt Aspire Housing to consider terminating services

Aspire Housing is reviewing all its contracts with local authorities, as councils in the Staffordshire area implement cuts to housing and care services.

Wayne Hughes, managing director of 9,000-home Aspire, based in Stafford, said it is examining the conditions under which it can end existing contracts and ‘taking a close look’ at those for which it is invited to tender.

The review has been prompted by cuts to Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council and Staffordshire County Council’s budgets.

Newcastle-under-Lyme had to make cuts equivalent to £75 per person in 2014/15 from the 2010/11 budget level, and expects to have to make another cut of about 10% in 2015/16. Staffordshire County Council cut £6m from its £11m Supporting People budget in January.

Aspire provides services on behalf of the two councils, among them sheltered housing projects, floating support, debt advice and a tele-care service that offers alarms to vulnerable residents in contracts.

The contracts are worth several hundred thousand pounds.

Until now, if council funding was insufficient to pay for services, Aspire topped this up from its own reserves. However, Mr Hughes said Aspire is now less likely to adopt that approach.

‘In the past, in all honesty, I think we have signed almost anything in an overwhelming desire to deliver services. [Now] we can’t provide the service at that level [of funding]. If the value exceeds the cost, then why are we doing it?

‘All opportunities are evaluated against the absolute need to produce a quantifiable social and/or commercial return.’

Aspire is also ‘taking a closer look’ at how it can exit contracts before signing up.

The association did not bid again for the contract to provide Newcastle-under-Lyme’s housing advice service, which it had run since 2009.

The council advertised the contract in the spring at between £1.5m and £1.6m, but council minutes show that it had to increase the funding available to secure a winning bid of £1.8m by Midland Heart in May.

Aspire declined to disclose the value of the previous contract.

A spokesperson for Staffordshire County Council said: ‘It would seem sensible for any organisation to ensure it had a sustainable, financial model in place.’

A spokesperson for Newcastle-under-Lyme council said that, despite some resistance from housing providers, the ‘outcome-based approach’ normally enabled ‘creative’ responses to cuts.

Jake Eliot, policy leader for health, care and support at the National Housing Federation, said many landlords faced ‘tough decisions’.

‘In the competitive tendering environment, with local authorities passing on significant cuts to services, it is more important than ever for independent providers to understand their costs and prices, and to be clear and confident about what they need to provide high-quality, safe and effective services,’ he said.

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Home straits Downsizing with the bedroom tax 17 July 2014 The price for underoccupying a…

Home straits

Downsizing with the bedroom tax

Ilo of sardine in tin

The price for underoccupying a home is high for many vulnerable people. Jess McCabe visits Stoke-on-Trent to find out how landlords are attempting to help

‘It was a shock to the system,’ says Shaun Bostock. ‘It’s bad enough losing someone.’

In the middle of a jobs club in a church hall in Stoke-on-Trent, as half a dozen locals receive computer lessons and careers advice, the mild-mannered 49-year-old’s voice starts to quiver. After 18 years of caring for his sick mother full-time, she died.

After a bereavement, social housing tenants are given a year’s grace period before the bedroom tax is imposed, or three months under universal credit. But, to Mr Bostock, it was a worry looming on the horizon. He felt he was about to lose the home they had shared for 21 years as well.

‘We lived in a bungalow in Keele. When she died, the bedroom tax came into [effect],’ he says.

Forced out
His dead mother’s bedroom was reclassified as a ‘spare’ room.

‘I already had massive debts to deal with,’ Mr Bostock explains – as he had repeatedly taken out loans to fill the gap between their income and expenditure. Paying the bedroom tax – housing benefit is reduced by 14 per cent for one spare room – was beyond his means.

‘I volunteer here and come to the job club to build up my confidence because I’m not good on computers. I haven’t worked in a long, long time,’ he adds. One day, he hopes to get a paid job as a carer.

‘When I cared for my mum, I was saving the country a small fortune. It didn’t seem fair,’ he says.

Despite his tragic circumstances, Mr Bostock is actually one of the lucky ones. Thanks to the intervention of his landlord, Aspire Housing, he has managed to downsize into a one-bedroom flat in Newcastle-under-Lyme, before the bedroom tax would have applied.

In 2012, as the housing association prepared for the start of the welfare reforms, Inside Housing accompanied Aspire income manager Paul Malkin as he knocked on doors and gave tenants like Mr Bostock the bad news: they were deemed to have a spare bedroom, and were about to be hit by the bedroom tax.

This was one of the social landlord’s strategies to prepare for the start of welfare reforms, which came into force in April 2013: finding out exactly who was living in its 8,500 homes and gearing up to help tenants avoid getting into financial trouble.

Now, Inside Housing has returned to see how Aspire is helping tenants to downsize to homes they will not be underoccupying, and so avoid the bedroom tax either by transferring to another property as Mr Bostock has done, or taking part in a mutual exchange.

Down sizing 
As the bedroom tax came in, social landlords warned that it would take decades to downsize all their underoccupying tenants. So has Aspire managed to use downsizing to head off the threat of welfare reform, both to its own balance sheet and its tenants’ well-being?

Aspire has certainly managed to reduce the number of underoccupying tenants.

When Inside Housing first visited Newcaste-under-Lyme in November 2012, the landlord estimated that about 750 of its 1,500 underoccupying tenants were about to be affected by the tax. When we returned in May 2014, it had 689.


Solution: Gail Austin outside her new bungalow

Of these, nearly 60 per cent are fully up to date on their rent payments. Only eight tenants are in such a serious situation that they have racked up more than £1,000 in arrears, including bedroom tax. With rents of around £80 a week, that would take several months of non-payment.

‘We haven’t evicted anybody yet solely for bedroom tax, it’s been bedroom tax plus other things. So looking into eviction is a very last resort for us – kicking people out is not the kind of business we’re in,’ says Wayne Hughes, managing director of Aspire Housing.

But what can home exchanges do to help people in this situation? Across the country, more social tenants are interested in mutual exchanges, reports Circle Housing, a 66,000-home housing association which also runs House Exchange, a nationwide online service for social housing tenants wanting to exchange homes with other tenants.

Kim Doran, house exchange manager at Circle, says: ‘Since the introduction of the under-occupation penalty in April 2013, we’ve seen a 29 per cent increase in visits to the site, a 36 per cent increase in registrations and a 52 per cent increase in successful downsizing exchanges.’

Still, for Aspire the number of tenants who have escaped the bedroom tax by transferring or taking part in a mutual exchange is still relatively low: only 81 underoccupying tenants who are under 60 years old have transferred. In March – the most recent month for which Aspire provided data – out of 58 mutual exchanges, half of those who swapped homes had previously been underoccupying.

Aspire’s Mr Hughes sees transferring as only one part of the puzzle.

‘We are taking the view here that our best response to welfare reform is to help our customers off benefit and into work,’ he says.

The landlord has managed to increase the number of successful transfers since it changed its qualification policy. Normally, tenants can’t transfer if they are in arrears. But to stop people getting into deeper financial difficulties, Aspire lifted this condition in April 2013, and allowed tenants affected by the bedroom tax to transfer even if they are in arrears.

‘They’ve got to show they’re making an effort still [by] paying some of it,’ adds Mr Malkin, explaining how Aspire adjusted its policy to stop tenants getting in even worse financial situations.

Open options
Gail Austin, who describes herself as ‘37 going on 90’, is one of the tenants who has benefited from the switch in policy.

Walking up to Ms Austin’s bungalow in a quiet cul-de-sac, the smell is of freshly cut grass. The small cluster of homes all have guard rails by the door – an indication that they have been adapted for disabled tenants just like Ms Austen, who was struggling to cope in her cold, three-bedroom house before the bedroom tax.

Around the back of the warden-controlled development, the small home looks out on to a shared green space, and some visiting ducks.

Ms Austin has a serious lung condition – her living room features a nebuliser and pill boxes, as well as dozens of pictures of her children and grandchildren.

But, she says, ‘I feel much better in myself now.’

For Ms Austin, the introduction of the bedroom tax was actually a good thing. Mr Malkin discovered her case as a result of the landlord’s efforts to head off revenue loss from the policy, having noted her high level of arrears. She had applied for an exchange about two years before, but the application was not successful.

Having looked into her case, Aspire realised Ms Austin’s previous house was unsuitable for someone with her medical condition and arranged the transfer, suspending the rules on moving tenants who are in arrears.

But ultimately, once Mr Malkin got involved, an examination of her records uncovered the fact she had been overpaying on her rent for some time. Newcastle-under-Lyme Council duly reimbursed her more than £3,000, wiping out the arrears and leaving her some extra cash to install carpet and furnishings in her new bungalow.

So efforts to downsize tenants can pay off. In these cases, tenants are more or less happily relocated, rent is coming in and Aspire’s bottom line is protected. The results can be mixed – for Ms Austin, the policy was the spark for a transfer she needed for health reasons and the high-level intervention of Aspire’s team erased her arrears problem. For Mr Bostock, however, the effects of being forced to move still linger.

‘There ought to be a more sensitive way of doing it,’ he says.

In numbers: House swaps

Aspire tenants are more than £1,000 in arrears

Aspire tenants on the list for a transfer in May 2014

on the transfer list are underoccupying

underoccupying tenants under the age of 60 have transferred to another Aspire home since April 2012

of the mutual exchanges completed by Aspire tenants in May involved those who were underoccupying

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Fuel cell pilot hopes to slash tenant energy use 11/07/2014 | By Jess McCabe Landlords trialling…

Fuel cell pilot hopes to slash tenant energy use

Fuel cell

Five landlords are installing new central heating systems powered by fuel cells in a pilot project designed to kick start the innovative technology in the social housing sector.

Your Housing, Rykneld Homes, Housing 21 and South Essex Homes are all involved in a pilot of the hydrogen fuel cell technology, which produces electricity from natural gas using a chemical process rather than burning it, with heat and water as by-products.

Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council is also trialling the system in a care home.

The pilot will spark fresh hope that the technology can be used by social landlords as a more eco-friendly alternative to gas boilers. It is also cheaper for tenants in the long-run.

It has been six years since the first experimental fuel cell was installed in housing, by Black Country Housing. But that installation failed to spark a wave of take up in social housing of a technology more commonly associated with replacing car engines.

The pilot starts this month and is being run by energy company Spark. It involves a fuel cell technology called Bluegen.

Spark said installing a fuel cell in one home costs £20,000, and it can provide electricity to four homes. Each social landlord is installing two units.

By comparison, external wall insulation costs between £9,000 and £26,000. Rykneld said its fuel cell heating system, installed in sheltered housing as part of the pilot, cost £75,000, but was cheaper than replacing the scheme’s aging gas boilers.

Richard Baines, director of sustainable development at Black Country Housing, said that the technology is still ‘ferociously expensive’ to install compared with a conventional boiler, because it is still at a developmental stage.

However, he added that social landlords should be piloting the technology, ‘because nobody else is going to do it’.

Fuel cells are not eligible for support under the energy company obligation, the main source of funding used by social landlords to pay for green improvements.

Rykneld Homes received a grant to cover half of the £75,000 cost from the National Grid. Fuel cells are also eligible for a subsidy of £13.24p per kilowatt hour under the feed-in tariff.

Neil Wilmer, project manager for energy at Your Housing, which installed a fuel cell in a scheme in Preston, said: ‘It is hoped that the technology will enable us to further reduce the scheme’s energy consumption and protect residents from future rising energy costs.’

Fuel cell technology explained

  • A fuel cell uses a chemical reaction to produce electricity. This differs from a conventional boiler or combustion engine, which burns fuel such as oil or natural gas to produce energy
  • Each fuel cell has a positive and a negative electrode, an electrolyte that carries particles from one electrode to another and a catalyst that speeds the reaction
  • The main fuel is hydrogen – but the cells in this pilot start with natural gas from the mains, first breaking down the methane into its particles to produce hydrogen
  • The by-products of that reaction are water and heat. If powered by pure hydrogen, it would be free of polluting greenhouse gas emissions
  • Most fuel cells are currently used in cars to replace gas or diesel engines
  • Fuel cell developers hope the technology will be used to power everything from mobile phones to cars and ships, from factories to people’s homes

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My interview with Natalie Elphicke and Keith House, who are…

My interview with Natalie Elphicke and Keith House, who are doing a government review of councils contribution to house building is out in Inside Housing today:

Meet housing’s alchemists

Keith House and Natalie Elphicke have been tasked with finding out how councils can get more homes built with no extra borrowing. Here, Jess McCabe tries to find out if they have the golden touch

Pinning down Natalie Elphicke and the aptly named Keith House is hard. The process of securing their time has been akin to arranging an interview with a particularly flighty celebrity diva.

The pair are in high demand – they are in the middle of carrying out a government review on how local authorities could be contributing to housing supply, and the recommendations are likely to make waves at a time when councils are only just starting to build homes again for the first time since the 1980s.

Inside Housing first tries to tempt Ms Elphicke, a housing finance lawyer who chairs the housing working party of the right-wing think tank Centre for Social Justice, and Mr House, Liberal Democrat council leader in Eastleigh, with an offer of lunch. This is swiftly rebutted by an assistant who states that they ‘categorically oppose’ the idea. Eventually, after a flurry of emails bouncing back and forth, a date and time is agreed upon at their office.

As a result, Inside Housing is on tenterhooks by the time we make our way to a slightly grotty meeting room in Eland House, the headquarters of the Communities and Local Government department, hidden behind the building site that is the £4 billion regeneration of Victoria.

When Ms Elphicke – compact and expensively besuited – and Mr House – tall and enthusiastic – eventually sweep into the room, they are 20 minutes late. But they are laughing and in good spirits. Which is positive, because we’re keen for any glimmer of a clue about what might come out of what promises to be an influential review.

Will Ms Elphicke and Mr House let anything slip? Or will it be as tricky to squeeze any information out of them as it was to get them in the room?

Give us a clue
The review, announced in January, sets out to ‘consider the role that all councils can play in contributing to overall house building’.

Controversially, the scope of the review, which was set by the government, excludes any discussion of raising the limits placed on local authorities to borrow money. What’s more, none of the recommendations can ask government to spend more, or release more funds via local authorities’ housing revenue accounts.

Matthew Warburton, policy advisor to the Association of Retained Council Housing, says there is still room for the review to make substantial recommendations, however. ‘Having the money is only one of the things – you need to have the land, you need to have the expertise. Clearly councils haven’t been building at scale in most cases for the best part of 30 years. They have needed to rebuild that development expertise.’

Still, when it comes to what is standing in the way of councils’ plans to build homes, the sector has been lobbying hard for the cap on its borrowing ability to be lifted. In 2012, Mr House, then vice-chair of the Local Government Association, wrote to the government stating that councils were ‘desperate’ to do more to help solve the housing crisis and calling for the government to help by ‘arming councils with greater freedom and financial flexibilities’.

But either Mr House has since changed his mind or he is taking seriously the duty of the reviewer to set aside their own views. ‘The clarity of the terms of reference means we can actually get under the skin of some bigger housing finance issues, so that we don’t just get local authorities saying to us, “please increase the headroom”. We want to understand the real reasons why councils aren’t doing more,’ he says.

Both Mr House and Ms Elphicke are keen to downplay their own views. Ms Elphicke doesn’t want to discuss her own venture, the Million Homes, Million Lives – a non-profit company which she set up with Calum Mercer, former finance director at Circle housing association – saying, ‘I don’t think that’s one to talk about in the context of the review’.

Mr House adds: ‘Of course you bring your own ideas into the process too, but the review isn’t about what we think as individuals, it’s about what we can assess and what evidence we can put forward, both to ministers as our sponsors, but to the sector as a whole.’

Inevitable influences
However, it seems almost inevitable that their backgrounds will be brought into any discussion of their findings. As well as chairing Million Homes, Million Lives, Ms Elphicke is a former director of the Conservative Policy Forum and author of a Policy Exchange paper in 2010 calling for housing associations to be allowed to raise equity finance in order to build social housing without grant.

Meanwhile, despite his chairing role at the LGA, Mr House is less of a well-known figure in the housing world and is a council leader for the junior member of the coalition government. The only thing that isn’t reminiscent of the coalition partnership is the fact that the two are getting on so well, even finishing each other’s sentences and interjecting to agree with each other.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be as significant if the Elphicke-House review was the only game in town. But Michael Lyons is in the middle of another independent review of the future of housing supply, this time commissioned by the Labour Party. Although the Lyons review has a wider remit, it seems inevitable that comparisons will be made heading into an election year.

Mr House acknowledges as much. ‘They’re different reviews, they’ve got different remits, they’ve got different audiences. But they at core talk to the same subject’ of housing supply, he says. ‘We’ve both met Michael Lyons, we’ll be doing a number of things with him. We think it’s important that although they are independent and different, they are testing the same subject so it’s important that we do work with each other where that works within our own terms of reference to move the debate on.’

Chair, Centre for Social Justice and Liberal Democrat council leader, Eastleigh

Source: Julian Anderson

Ms Elphicke is also keen to quash any suggestion of party politics creeping into the review. ‘I think [our] mix of skills and experiences seems to have been more of the focus of interest, than the politics. And that’s what we would hope for because this isn’t a political review, it’s a national review and it’s for the government. We sit very much in the national interest and not in the party political interest.’

As to the recommendations that the review is likely to come out with, unfortunately both have their lips firmly sealed. Even on the relatively innocuous question of whether they think local authorities are getting enough homes built, they seem unwilling to commit themselves.

‘I think on the question of what type of things local authorities are doing, one of the things we do hope to highlight is good examples, where people have been doing things, and maybe other authorities don’t realise that’s a way to deliver more homes or they haven’t approached it in the same way, so lessons that can be learnt and skills and capacity built more strongly,’ Ms Elphicke offers, while her partner in the review says it’s too soon to tell what the effect of self-financing has been.

It is also too soon to tell what the review is likely to recommend – the pair say they’ve not had time to go through all the submissions yet to get their thoughts together.

But a number of themes come up repeatedly as we talk – particularly councils working in partnership with housing associations and ‘private interests’ to get houses built in their areas.

Valuable assets
Ms Elphicke says that they have been presented with evidence of local authorities ‘unlocking’ the value in their assets, from infilling homes in garages and odd spaces on existing estates, to ‘asset disposal’ – or, in other words, selling off council land to raise money.

‘So where people have found that perhaps they’ve reached a borrowing limit, they’ve found a different way to engage and partner to bring forward the homes that they want,’ she adds.

In perhaps another clue as to the direction of the review, Ms Elphicke and Mr House point out that local authorities are already looking at building private rented and market sale homes.

‘A lot of local authorities are under quite severe financial pressure, they want to protect services at a time when they’ve got declining income in real terms, so they’ve got to be more imaginative about the way they make their books balance,’ states Mr House. ‘They want to protect services and the only way they can do that is to find more sources of income, and housing plays a part in that.’

The review is likely to feature quite a lot of examples of good practice, as well. Ms Elphicke and Mr House are keen to praise those councils that have got things done despite the constraints they are facing.

Ms Elphicke says that the submissions so far have revealed lots of instances where councils are calling for changes that have actually already happened. ‘There’s an enormous amount that’s happened [to policies affecting house building] and quite a few of the early sort of bottlenecks and issues that people had, quite a few have been ironed out.’ Many of these problems are practical, technical issues – such as trying to work out how many homes councils can own outside their HRA.

‘One of our messages is going to be about trying to make sure that in our report we give some clearer summaries about what actually you can do, and that in itself is probably an important piece of work to put out there,’ says Mr House.

In another clue, Ms Elphicke points out that already the review has found a ‘disconnect’ between lobbying and the experiences reported by people working on the ground. ‘One of the classics, one of the ones close to my heart, is obviously you can’t build social housing without any subsidy. But when you get people who are actually doing it, they’re actually delivering, there is a bit of a disconnect,’ she says.

Both are keen to emphasise that local authorities are proud to be building homes and are passionate about adding to housing supply. Between them, they use the word ‘enthusiasm’ more than a dozen times.

It’s not all going to be soft recaps of policies already in place or examples of good practice, however. Ms Elphicke explains that the pair is working with the CLG on a detailed mapping of which councils are facilitating building and which are not. Inside Housing has done some of this work for them, by surveying which councils are building and which are holding back. The review is likely to have some choice, as well as supportive, words for those that aren’t building.

Because the pair are reluctant to say anything of substance about the contents of the review, we agree to meet a few weeks later for a second chat, in the hope they will have more to say. However, after rescheduling on the day of our second conversation, Inside Housing’s final visit to Eland House fails to shine much further light.

In July, the first ‘something’ is due out – Mr House and Ms Elphicke are unwilling to call it an interim report. We will have to wait on tenterhooks a little longer.

Councils building

Earlier this year, Inside Housing used freedom of information requests to investigate exactly which local authorities in England were using their housing revenue accounts to fund the construction of new council housing.

We found:

  • 87 per cent of English stock-holding councils plan to use the HRA to fund new homes
  • 15,630 homes already on the drawing board for the next 30 years
  • 2,492 homes planned by Hackney Council over 20 years, the local authority with the biggest plans to build

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Raining abuse for housing staff 20/06/2014 Research by Inside…

Raining abuse for housing staff

Research by Inside Housing has revealed that the number of assaults against front line housing staff has risen for the third year in a row. Jess McCabe investigates why

‘A drunk man tried to hit me with a table leg and attempted to hit me in the face.’

This is the account of a housing worker running into a tenant in their daily work. Worryingly, this is not a one-off case. It is just one of a catalogue of stories of physical and verbal assaults against housing staff that Inside Housing has collected from a survey of professionals.

Our wide-ranging investigation has found worrying evidence that abuse is becoming an everyday part of the job for some housing officers. And, for the third year running, incidents are on the rise.

Low-level threat
A month after Andrew Stephenson was sentenced to 15 years for shooting a bailiff and a Metropolitan housing officer, the question of staff safety has rarely had a higher profile in the housing sector. Instances of gun violence may be extreme and rare, but Inside Housing has found evidence that ‘lower-level’ violence is often accepted as part of the job. We learned of housing staff being held hostage by tenants, assaulted and threatened with weapons, and subject to long campaigns of psychological abuse. And many housing professionals feel their employers should and could be doing much more to protect them from such incidents occurring.

Graph for Raining Abuse feature

Using freedom of information requests to local authorities across the UK, combined with a survey of the largest 100 housing associations, the survey found 3,587 assaults reported by 217 organisations in the calendar year of 2013, and 936 in the first three months of 2014.

Counting only the 173 organisations that responded to the survey both last year and this year, it becomes clear that the rate of violent assaults against housing staff has increased. In 2012, these organisations reported a total of 2,503 verbal and physical assaults. In 2013, this rose 22 per cent to 3,047.

The only good news is that physical assaults has fallen by 4 per cent, from 391 to 373 incidents in 2013, among the group of organisations for which we have comparable data. This trend looks set to continue – 79 cases were reported in which housing staff were physically assaulted in the first three months of 2014, but this is down on 90 cases reported in the same time period last year.

Verbal assaults – such as swearing and threatening staff – rose dramatically in these organisations, by 30 per cent from 2,079 cases in 2012, to 2,680 cases in 2013. In total, more than 3,000 cases of verbal assault were reported.

Only one single respondent out of 61 said they felt safer doing their job now than they did 12 months ago.

Coming forward
Finding out why assaults are on the rise is less easy – it could be that social landlords are getting better at recording the true number of incidents of violence.

However, an anonymous survey of Inside Housing readers found that half of the 61 housing professionals who responded said the government’s welfare reforms have increased the risk to themselves or their colleagues. Digging into the individual stories, it is clear why. One housing officer, for example, speaks of being ‘pushed out of the house when dealing with non-payment of bedroom tax payments’ by a tenant ‘telling me if I called again then they would find out where I lived and come and see how many spare rooms I had’.

Graph for Raining Abuse feature

Another housing officer observes ‘not only cuts in my service, but general cuts to services such as mental health teams’.

‘The reduction in residential mental health beds and the lack of availability of accommodation have all led to customers becoming more and more frustrated with services and resources available – or rather, lack of them,’ they explain.

Debbie Gorman, service lead for neighbourhoods at 9,000-home Trafford Housing Trust, which reported 20 assaults in 2013 and eight in the first three months of 2014, including one physical assault, says: ‘Although we haven’t seen an increase in assaults, we have seen a rise in the number of challenging contacts that front line staff have – people who are in difficult financial and social situations who feel they “can’t go on”.’

The association has responded by bringing in the Salvation Army to provide training to those front line staff on how to deal with these ‘challenging contacts’.

Whatever the reason for the increase in incidents, however, many housing staff that Inside Housing spoke to during the course of our investigation refer to taking verbal abuse from tenants in particular as ‘part of the job’.

Encouragingly, about 45 social landlords sent us data on the number of assaults on their housing staff for the first time. However, a handful of councils and housing associations still told us they do not even record incidents of verbal abuse, and in other cases we were told informally that the official statistics are unlikely to cover the true extent of the problem.

Untold stories
Worryingly, one third of respondents to our anonymous survey told us that they have not reported all the violent incidents that happened to them in the last 12 months. Asked why, just under half said that such incidents are ‘just part of the job’. Another third said it would be a waste of time to report them as nothing is ever done.

Graph for Raining Abuse feature

‘We are constantly told to just get on with it, as it is part of the job. I am a young female, and I still get told this even if I am dealing with men and women who are known to be violent or have a history of stalking, sexual assault and rape,’ one officer who works in homelessness services told us.

Merthyr Tydfil Council, for example, says that ‘despite no incidents being recorded, physical assaults and verbal assaults involving a member of the housing team are virtually a daily occurrence’.

The council adds: ‘Due to their frequency, such verbal assaults and threatening behaviour incidents are not actually recorded. The customer is asked to leave and the interview or telephone call is terminated.’

Such incidents can be more serious than might be suggested by the term ‘verbal abuse’. Great Yarmouth Council reported that one of its six incidents of verbal abuse against housing staff in 2013 ‘included threat with a weapon’.

One anti-social behaviour officer who responded to our anonymous survey is certain that her employer could have done more, after she was taken hostage by a tenant – an incident she also brackets as ‘verbal abuse’.

‘[The tenant] would not allow me to leave, nor allow my colleague to enter the property,’ the officer told us.

Unsurprisingly, this officer told us that she feels less safe on the job than she did 12 months ago.

Graph for Raining Abuse feature

After reporting the incident to the housing association where she worked, she says: ‘No feedback was given except that I should not have taken my shoes off. In my opinion this was not the most important feedback that could have been given. If I could have run I would have run without shoes anyway.’

Lasting impact
The impact of such incidents can be long-lasting. In the words of a housing officer who was physically assaulted: ‘I feel quite vulnerable and I’m less keen to take an active role like I used to.’

Another said: ‘I trust no one and try not to put myself in vulnerable situations where I could be at risk.’

Even incidents that ‘just’ involve being shouted at can be terrifying. A housing officer in Wales told us that they had been on the receiving end of verbal abuse and threats ‘several times’.

‘The most recent was when a male tenant shouted “if you close that door once more like that, I’ll knock your f*cking head off” when I was looking at why someone’s front door wouldn’t lock properly,’ one housing officer recalls.
Some housing professionals told us they had been subjected to racist, sexist and homophobic abuse. Threats of rape and murder, menacing suggestions like ‘I’ll find out where you live’ were also reported. All the words and phrases in the illustration to this feature come from real incidents reported to Inside Housing in our survey.

Staff working in care may be particularly exposed to violence. One support worker told us, ‘I was punched twice. First in the neck, second time was in the stomach.’ The first case involved a tenant with mental health issues, but the second did not. ‘Nothing was done despite me saying I wanted her arrested. They “had a chat” with her. [There was] no support from my manager,’ the support worker says.

Graph for Raining Abuse feature

In other cases, abuse can take a less confrontational, but more insidious form. A number of survey respondents told us of times when tenants have threatened to go above their heads or get them sacked. If that sounds like tenants exercising their consumer right to complain, consider the case of Warren Carlon.

Mr Carlon, head of operational services at Salix Homes, was one of the staff on the receiving end of some of the 22 assaults the social landlord has reported since 2013, four of which were in the first three months of 2014.

The incidents started three years ago, he explains, and gradually got worse. But it came to a head earlier this year when the tenant ‘started making all kinds of outlandish allegations’, he said.

‘He was going to do away with me, he was going to get me sacked,’ Mr Carlon recalls. ‘He was generally trying to discredit me in the organisation.’

The turning point came when the tenant phoned a staff member who Mr Carlon supervises and repeated the allegations. It was then that Salix’s legal team stepped in, and put together a case for an injunction. Eight weeks before he spoke to Inside Housing, an interim order was issued and the abusive behaviour stopped. With a relieved tone in his voice, Mr Carlon describes this as ‘eight weeks of peace’.

Taking action
Salix isn’t the only organisation to take action to protect staff. L&Q, which told us one incident earlier this year involved a resident who ‘faced off [against an] employee with a metal bar’, took a novel approach – a self-made film, highlighting the risk of assault and illustrating what steps to take for better protection, such as informing colleagues before if going to see a tenant.

The film also highlights the perils of under-reporting, with an extended sequence showing staff having smaller altercations with a tenant. With no record of his aggressive behaviour, the film culminates in a housing officer visiting the tenant unaware of the risk – and being taken hostage.

Eric Richardson, head of health and safety at L&Q, says that no specific incident inspired the film – the association reported 35 physical and verbal assaults in 2013, and 11 in the first quarter of 2014 – L&Q did not respond to our survey last year. ‘But the health and safety team had been receiving concerns from staff about their safety while lone working, when there were very few incidents of verbal and physical assaults on record.

‘When we investigated further, it became apparent that L&Q was experiencing under-reporting, just as Inside Housing discovered across the sector in their survey last year. This sparked our campaign.’

A number of associations say they provide lone workers with safety alarms, trackers and other devices. At Catalyst Housing Group, this is mandatory, says Anthony Sewell, the 21,000-home association’s safety and well-being manager.

‘The alarm is sent to a 24/7 monitoring centre where any unfolding events are listened to, assessed and recorded and an appropriate response escalated,’ he adds. The group, which reported five physical assaults last year, also pushes for police action or eviction if it’s appropriate, Mr Sewell says.

It’s clear from our survey that in some cases, these policies are applied. One housing management officer who received a death threat says: ‘The matter was dealt with seriously, I was interviewed by a senior manager, and a risk assessment was taken, the customer was written to and given a warning, and was added to the at risk register, so procedures were followed.’

Change of attitude
But some of our survey respondents were not so lucky. ‘No managerial support or from the company on a wider level,’ was the verdict of one housing professional.

‘I do feel we are expected to routinely accept verbal abuse,’ was another comment.

Only about one in three told us they were happy with how their employer handled assaults against them.

Housing officers had some very specific feedback for their employers about how to change this situation. ‘Patch sizes are too big. We need more resources generally,’ says one housing officer, who along with a number of others, wants to be supplied with a personal alarm.

Those staff who do have safety procedures set up by their employer do not always feel they are terribly effective. One officer, for example, says they feel a system of mobile alerts ‘is nothing more than a tick-box which my employer thinks absolves them from all responsibility because they have a “system in place”.’

The question remains, then, of what social landlords can do to better protect their staff. Although some landlords have stepped up to improve the safety of their employees, our survey shows that assaults are rising and not enough is being done. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the housing professionals who told Inside Housing that, on asking for more protection from violence in the course of doing their job, ‘I am then asked if a career in housing is for me.’

of respondents did not report all incidents to their employer in the past 12 months

of respondents have been punched, kicked or pushed while doing their job in the past 12 months

of respondents have been verbally assaulted while doing their job in the past 12 months

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Assaults on housing staff shoot up by 22%

My latest feature for Inside Housing led to this news story:

Assaults on housing staff shoot up by 22%

20/06/2014 |

By Jess McCabe

Front line housing staff report 3,587 physical and verbal assaults in 2013 Physical and verbal assaults on housing staff jumped 22 per cent in 2013 – the third consecutive year the number of attacks has increased. An exclusive investigation by Inside Housing, using freedom of information requests to councils and a survey of the 100 biggest housing associations in the United Kingdom, discovered more than 3,500 assaults on housing staff working for 217 organisations in 2013, and 936 in the first three months of 2014. Of these, 173 organisations supplied two years of comparable data, and witnessed a clear rise in the number of assaults reported by staff. These landlords reported 3,047 assaults in 2013, up from 2,503 in 2012. David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, described the finds as ‘shocking, but sadly not surprising.’ He said: ‘The rise is an indicator of the increasing financial strain on residents. ‘As welfare reforms push people into ever greater financial distress, housing staff are being blamed by desperate tenants who are wrongly taking it out on people who are there to support them.’ Verbal assaults are responsible for the increase, with the number of physical assaults reducing by 4 per cent in 2013. However, the definition of ‘verbal assault’ used by social landlords and local authorities includes threats with weapons, of death and sexual assault and at least one hostage-taking. A number of staff told Inside Housing that verbal assault was considered to be ‘part of the job’. Some of the rise could be explained by landlords getting better at recording assaults. However, in an anonymous survey of 61 housing professionals, more than 40 per cent said they feel less safe doing their jobs than they did 12 months ago. Click here to read more about the abuse housing staff have been faced with over the last year.

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If you are a subscriber to Index on Censorship, turn to around the middle of the magazine and…

If you are a subscriber to Index on Censorship, turn to around the middle of the magazine and you’ll find a feature by me and Erick Kabandera. 

I met Erick last year, when I was travelling around Tanzania as a fellow of the International Reporting Project. Erick was the fixer for our group, and, it quickly emerged, a brilliant reporter as well.

We came up for the idea of a feature about this UK government-funded project to support investigative journalism as we were trundling around the country in a series of safari vehicles, chatting away about the stories we were working on and the trials and tribulations of working in Tanzania as a journalist.

As the IRP group travelled about, Tanzanian journalists were in the midst of a particularly tough time. The government had just suspended two of the country’s newspapers for publishing seditious materials. But, talking to Erick, it quickly emerged that such direct acts of censorship were not the only problems for journalists. Lack of resources, particularly for rural reporters, direct attacks on journalists, all these things are facts of life for Tanzanian journalists.

I’m really proud of the feature we came up with together – please do check it out if you manage to get a copy of Index. 

(The feature is only in the print edition.)

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Tory guru questions social housing subsidies 12 June 2014 | By Jess McCabe Lord Finkelstein queries…

Tory guru questions social housing subsidies

An influential Tory peer has told Inside Housing he is not ‘convinced’ that the government should be subsidising the construction of social housing.

Speaking in depth about his politics and background, Danny Finkelstein, a close personal friend of chancellor George Osborne and former leader writer for The Times newspaper, said: ‘Obviously we have to have a subsidised housing system, and some people in the Conservative party believe that there is in fact a need for socialised house building, but I’m less convinced by that.’

He added that he did need to ‘study’ the implications of his suggestion.

Tony Stacey, chief executive of 3,987-home South Yorkshire Housing Association, said: ‘He isn’t the only one within the Conservative Party that holds that view. Equally, there are a lot of people within the Conservative Party now who do get what the function of social housing is and we need to work to change attitudes rapidly ahead of the general election.’

Lord Finkelstein does believe, though, that Britain should make housing more affordable by building more homes. ‘One of the things we ought to be doing as part of our housing policy is to reduce the cost of housing, and one of the ways to reduce the cost of housing is to build houses, and I think all political parties agree,’ he said.

‘It’s partly to do with planning, partly to do with developers and mortgages. Certainly we have a lot of space in Britain.’

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg on Monday said that state money should be used to support the construction of homes by councils and housing associations. 

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The Fink tank

My latest for Inside Housing is an interview with Tory peer, Times columnist and close pal of George Osborne Danny Finkelstein:

Chair, Policy Exchange

Ahead of his appearance at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference, Conservative peer and Policy Exchange chair Danny Finkelstein tells Jess McCabe what he thinks about the welfare state

Danny Finkelstein bobs about Portcullis House in a pink shirt and suit trousers. He cuts a friendly, slightly bumbling figure, playing with his iPad case and fiddling with his security pass. He affectionately calls himself ‘Danny the Fink’.

The only outward clue that there’s more to the Conservative peer than meets the eye is the constant stream of politicians, lobbyists and senior journalists who frequently stop for a chat or wave hello during our interview. ‘The Fink’, more properly known as Baron Finkelstein of Pinner, is political and football columnist for The Times, chair of influential think tank Policy Exchange, a former advisor to William Hague and the close personal friend of George Osborne. He allegedly helps the chancellor write his speeches (or at least delivers some ‘good one liners’). Last year, The Spectator quoted an anonymous political insider as saying ‘what Danny writes today George thinks tomorrow’.

So a chance to find out what Lord Finkelstein thinks about housing is not to be passed up. But Inside Housing has managed to grab him a week before he is due to sally forth into a debate at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference in Manchester on a particularly heated topic: has the government abandoned the poor?

Lord Finkelstein doesn’t want to give away what he’s going to say when he goes up against left-wing journalist Owen Jones, but he is visibly bemused and audibly offended by any suggestion that government cuts are a result of a lapse of morality on the part of the Conservatives.

Welfare reform
‘I think that there is force in the argument that what we’ve gone through is very tough on people who don’t have very much money because they are most dependent on the state,’ he admits. But, taking the bedroom tax as an example, he says: ‘If you believe you’ve got to do something about housing benefit bills, what is the best, most compassionate, fairest way to do it? One way is to do it on the basis of number of bedrooms. You can come up with another method and it will have the same set of problems, unless you want to give everyone on housing benefit the same amount of housing benefit they get now. The way the last government dealt with it was to ignore the problem until we nearly went bankrupt.’

‘The disaster that’s happened to people that are not well off in this country is entirely a result of us having overspent and not growing enough,’ he adds.

Lord Finkelstein is chatty, prepossessing and funny (see box: ‘The Fink’ on…). He tells the story of following one man on Twitter after the man commented rudely on something David Cameron said. ‘It turned out he was a Nazi – not as in he had the wrong view on the bedroom tax and he’s a “Nazi”, as in somebody who wore swastikas,’ Lord Finkelstein says. ‘Social media is really interesting in that you encounter people who have jobs, go to work and are Nazis.’

He goes on to tell a story of his politics rooted in a concern for the ‘less well off’, the rule of law and ‘gentle liberties’. His proudest moment is the extension of marriage to gay couples, having championed gay rights since he was involved in the now-defunct Social Democrat Party in the 1980s. The Lord lays claim to helping transform the Conservatives into the sort of party that would support this legislation.

Parental influence
He says his biggest inspiration is his parents, who both came to the UK as refugees. His mother escaped the Nazis and Belsen, his father a Ukrainian prison camp. The family’s experiences in this country, however, have made Lord Finkelstein a sympathetic supporter of the welfare state – within moderation. ‘My children are in state schools, my wife works in the NHS, my father was a university professor and my mother was a teacher. My parents are immigrants. The reason I’m in the Conservative Party is my frustration at all my fellow concerned people to work out that we can’t pay for everybody’s desires all at the same time unless we work out how to do it,’ he says.

‘In fact, if you come from an immigrant family as we do, I don’t think you ever forget the contingent relationship you have with all the stability of living in a stable country,’ he explains. Such was the influence of his parents’ experiences that as a child he refused to break the law at all – not even copying records onto cassette tape for his friends.

And so, unsurprisingly, his solution to the crisis of affordability in housing is to build more homes, drive down the price of housing, and grow the economy. His views on the importance of building will no doubt go down well in the social housing sector. But his views on grant for social landlords, less so. ‘Obviously we have to have a subsidised housing system, and some people in the Conservative Party believe that there is in fact a need for socialised house building, but I’m less convinced by that,’ he says. Still, there may be room to influence Lord Finkelstein, as with a swipe of his lanyard, and a jovial smile, he adds: ‘But that’s where I get slightly out of my depth and I do need to study that.’

Don’t miss Danny Finkelstein at the CIH Housing 2014 conference. To book your place click here anddon’t miss the event app.

‘The Fink’ on…

Who will win the World Cup:
‘No one knows who will win the World Cup – if they did, there’d be no point having the tournament. But there’s a 40 per cent chance that Brazil will win. It’s statistically true that they’re prohibitive favourites.’

Who will win the general election:
‘This is the most difficult election to estimate.

On one hand, the economy didn’t do very well. On the other hand, the last year of the parliament will probably see strong personal income growth and economic growth. I know Ed Miliband and I’ve always liked him.

I respect his intelligence and he’s reasonably politically imaginative. That is not the view of the public, Labour will struggle because of that. Without that difficulty, I would be reasonably confident that Labour will win.’

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My latest feature at Inside Housing is an investigation into…

My latest feature at Inside Housing is an investigation into fire safety breaches by London’s social landlords:

Fire safety under scrutiny

Social landlords promised to clean up their act after the Lakanal House tower block tragedy, but five years on, fire safety breaches are still occurring. Jess McCabe reports

London’s social landlords are getting used to life under the microscope. The city’s fire brigade upped its scrutiny of housing in 2013, carrying out 1,948 audits of purpose-built flats of four or more storeys – up from 1,344 the previous year. Attention has been firmly focused on the city’s housing stock since six people died in the Lakanal House fire in London’s Camberwell, in a 14-storey block owned by Southwark council in 2009.

But have London’s social landlords learned their fire safety lesson? Or is the fire brigade finding cause for concern? On the face of it, there is still reason to worry.

The London Fire Brigade has handed out 35 fire safety enforcement notices against social landlords in the year to March. These notices are issued by the fire brigade in England and Wales, in cases when a landlord breaches fire safety laws – specifically, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The last time Inside Housing dug into the LFB’s database of enforcement notices, in January 2013, we found 16 had been served in six months. When these figures are extrapolated, this suggests the number of enforcement notes being issued is up slightly.

Over the same period the LFB has also upped its scrutiny of landlords. Of the 1,948 inspections, 20 per cent (380) were found to require a variety of improvements. Not all of these interventions would be in the form of enforcement notices, as some problems might have been relatively minor.

Hearing of this finding, Peter Gannaway, chair of the National Social Housing Fire Safety Group, says: ‘We should be working towards ensuring we don’t receive any notices.’

Yet fire safety officers in housing associations and local authorities alike agree that most social landlords have poured more resources into fire safety in the aftermath of Lakanal.

Increased resources
Sarah Stevenson Jones, health and safety manager at 21,000-home Westminster-based landlord CityWest Homes, is emphatic. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘While health and safety generally has always been at the forefront of most organisations’ agendas, high-profile incidents such as Lakanal House raised awareness at board level and has resulted in fire professionals receiving the resources that perhaps weren’t previously available to address fire risk.’

‘I certainly think councils are now well aware of their responsibilities and the gravity of the situation,’ agrees Russ Timpson, a former fire-fighter who now runs risk management company Horizonscan, and organises the Tall Buildings Fire Safety Network. He describes the scramble to improve fire safety after the deadly Southwark blaze as ‘tombstone legislation’.

There are some signs that London landlords are taking things seriously. For example, Brent Housing Partnership was recently about to demolish a block of flats in south Kilburn. Before the demolition, it used the opportunity to do a real-life smoke test on the building, in order to see if lessons could be learned for similar blocks still occupied by tenants. The test proved large volumes of smoke can spread quickly in unprotected areas, according to BHP.

But the fact remains, that 35 enforcement notices have still been issued – more than one a fortnight. In these days of eye-rolling at the mere mention of health and safety, it could be easy to dismiss the severity of the fire safety enforcement notice. But fire safety experts say these notices are only issued in the most serious cases – when a problem in the structure of a building or plans for what to do in case of a fire is very serious. Or, in other cases, when the landlord has repeatedly ignored attempts to address the problem.

‘I like to call it a last resort,’ says Mark Andrews, deputy assistant commissioner of the London Fire Brigade. Talking over the phone, Mr Andrews explains that inspectors from the fire brigade will first give verbal advice. If it is not acted on, this will be followed up with a letter. An enforcement notice is only issued ‘in more serious cases or if we give advice that’s been ignored’.

‘It’s an enforcement notice. It’s serious,’ agrees Brian Castle, assistant director at Richmond Council and chair of the London Councils Fire Safety Group. Brought in to bring all fire safety rules under one regime, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 sets a number of requirements on social landlords, including ensuring adequate precautions in case of fire, and making sure the premises are equipped with the necessary fire alarms and firefighting equipment.

Not every building is inspected – the fire service focuses its lens on inspecting tall buildings, more than four storeys high, and more vulnerable properties such as care homes (because residents may find it more difficult to escape in case of a fire) and hostels (because residents’ behaviour, combined with the type of building, increases the hazard).

Looking in-depth at some of the notices issued reveals the level of the risks.

Circle Housing Old Ford was pulled up on six separate breaches of the order in relation to its 82-home Sandall House block of flats in Tower Hamlets, on 8 July last year, including its ‘failure in the effective management of the preventative and protective measures’.

Circle has spent £7,500 on fixing the problems identified by the fire service, including the addition of fire-stopping in a lift shaft, pipework that allows the fire brigade to pump water to upper floors, and training staff.

‘We are committed to ensuring that all our residents have a safe place to live and taking these steps could save lives,’ says David Richardson, regional director of property services.

Identifying problems
Not every case involves the fire service sweeping in for an unexpected inspection, however. On 9 January, for example, Newlon Housing Trust was issued an enforcement notice on three counts. This happened after the 7,500-home trust was carrying out electrical and cabling work on its 249-home Ashburton Triangle keyworker flats, and realised there were some fire safety problems.

‘Obviously in this instance, we invited the fire brigade in, and we were aware that was likely to happen,’ says Joe Molloson, spokesperson for the trust. So far it has completed most of the remedial work that the fire brigade ordered, he adds.

Ilo of microscope

Source: Andy Council

Given that tower block safety has been a particular concern after Lakanal, and the fire brigade is in the middle of a high-profile campaign flagging escape routes from tower blocks to tenants, it is worrying that safety breaches in blocks of flats are the still most common problem identified by Inside Housing’s research – 15 of the 35 cases relate to flats more than four storeys high.

Another 11 of the enforcement notices relate to care homes owned by social landlords. As the LFB issued a total of 62 actions against care homes, this means that social landlords account for one in six of care homes failing to meet their fire safety obligations in this period.

Another seven cases relate to fire safety failings uncovered in hostels. For example, Ekaya Housing Association was served a notice related to a series of problems at a supported housing project for five single parents in Brixton. It has since carried out the majority of work required by the fire service, such as repairing emergency lights and adjusting doors. A spokesperson says that Ekaya ‘will do everything in its power to ensure this is not repeated’. The association is also training supported and housing management staff on fire safety.

Only a small handful of the 35 notices were served on local authorities. Four were served on a council-run hostel, a care home, a tower block and a building classed as ‘other sleeping accommodation’. One arm’s-length management organisation, Hackney Homes, was also served a notice on a block of flats.

Privately, some fire safety officers working at local authorities complain that housing associations are under less pressure to take fire safety seriously than their council peers. Partly this is politics: if the local fire service rebukes the council on fire safety failings it is much more embarrassing and councillors are likely to get involved. More than one fire safety officer noted that councils, unlike housing associations, are directly and democratically accountable.

By contrast, housing associations are accountable to private boards. Most are spread across many local authority areas, and so are also less likely to have a close relationship with all the fire services that will be inspecting their buildings.

London-based housing association L&Q had five notices served on its buildings, the most of any single landlord. In a statement, its spokesperson says: ‘L&Q owns around 6,000 residential blocks that are covered by risk assessment, this equates to less than 0.1 per cent of our property blocks receiving a notice for the period indicated.’

The 70,000-home landlord is also upgrading fire safety across all its homes through a £15 million investment programme, that will finish in March 2015, she adds.

However, one fire safety expert working for a London borough was not convinced by this response. Speaking anonymously to avoid his council being seen to directly criticise the housing association, he says he would be ‘mortified’ to have received a fire safety enforcement notice on one of his blocks, let alone the most fire safety enforcement notices of any landlord.

The question now is whether social landlords as a whole are taking fire safety seriously enough. As Lakanal starts to shift from terrifying recent event to the history books, is the shock of tragedy starting to fade? Or is the prospect of a rebuke from the fire brigade losing its bite?

Enforcement by numbers

fire safety notices served against social landlords

served against housing associations

served against local authorities

served against housing charities

served against an arm’s-length management organisation

enforcement notices issued in total

were to hostels

of these were to care homes

Read this feature on Inside Housing

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