On firm foundations, by Melinda Phillips

7 Dec 06
As local authorities square up to the housing and care demands of older people, new public-private partnerships are emerging to enable housing associations to meet their needs. Melinda Phillips explains

08 December 2006

As local authorities square up to the housing and care demands of older people, new public-private partnerships are emerging to enable housing associations to meet their needs. Melinda Phillips explains

For registered social landlords – as with other players in the third sector – the landscape is changing fast. It sometimes feels as if we are not just 'embracing change', as the management consultants would urge us to do, but are in a full-scale relationship with it.

The new terrain is littered with both opportunity and risk. The simultaneous emergence of several economic, demographic and public policy trends has given RSLs the opportunity to expand dramatically.

We are not only ageing as a society but also – rightly – demanding higher standards in housing and care for ourselves and our families. 'Grey power' is an electoral reality, and as the baby boomers begin to require care and support in large numbers, their expectations will be much higher than those of previous generations.

An ageing population also requires more specialist services, such as dementia care. At the same time, the government is demanding more joined-up health and social care services, closer to people's own homes. Most local authorities also face the challenge of bringing their residential homes up to minimum legal standards, with dramatic funding implications. There is also the decent homes initiative.

Given all this, it is not surprising that local authorities are looking for partners to help them meet the challenges. They need non-statutory partners able to bring together a wide range of funding streams and with the skills to negotiate the complex conditions and safeguards required by government.

For RSLs such as Housing 21, the challenge is that while we have a rich history of building and managing housing for older people, we must also quickly get to grips with new ways of working – notably around partnerships.

Housing 21 is involved in three Private Finance Initiative or public-private partnership deals, which illustrate both the opportunities and challenges. The biggest of these – a £400m PFI deal with Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council launched last month – will build or refurbish about 1,500 homes for older people, and provide support and housing management services for 30 years. It is the biggest sheltered housing PFI project in the UK.

In another deal, Housing 21 is the preferred bidder for a £160m contract for Kent County Council. This will oversee the construction and management of 353 units for older people with mental health conditions or learning disabilities. We are at a similar stage in a £165m contract with Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council, which involves the construction and management of 322 units for frail older people, including specialist housing for people with dementia.

Commissioning, managing and maintaining stock levels over the long term involves risks that RSLs are used to – and that perhaps gives us experience that private sector organisations cannot boast. We face new risks in the PFI game, however, not the least of which is the collapse of negotiations at an advanced stage after significant costs have been incurred.

Before and during those negotiations we have to work closely with external consultants and develop sophisticated new financial and business models. Once the contract is signed, ongoing vigilance is required, as there are clear performance requirements with penalties attached.

We have already recognised the importance of clarity in preparation and planning from design and construction through to maintenance and repairs. The scale and complexity of the projects outlined above, however, clearly take our activity on to a new plane and RSLs have had to adopt an increasingly commercial approach as they embrace the new realities.

At Housing 21 we have established a specialist focus in our development and management arrangements is vital when working with commissioners to develop PFI projects. That is backed up by local service teams that can respond quickly to housing, health and social care demands.

As the PFI and other forms of PPPs develop, we will see less concentration on the bricks-and-mortar approach that perhaps characterised these relationships in their early years. Projects involving the size of sums mentioned above clearly have a regeneration role. They offer a chance not only to transform the experiences of the client group whose homes we will build and manage, but also to make a difference to the wider community in those areas. And by tapping into a variety of funding streams, we can work with service providers to change the way they deliver services.

For example, in Oldham, the new sheltered homes and those who live in them will be at the heart of their communities. Too often in the past, such housing has been isolated. Each of the Oldham schemes will offer its community a valuable resource – residents of bungalows will be able to take part in social activities at nearby sheltered housing schemes or at purpose-built communal facilities.

In Walsall, the new housing will effectively be a one-stop shop for housing and care services for frail older people – and, therefore, a valuable community resource. It will include specialist accommodation for people with dementia, as well as intermediate and interim care flats for people who need a 'mid-way' home after leaving hospital. Each of the schemes will provide day-care services – not only for residents but for other older people in the area. The schemes will include shops, another way of ensuring that those living in the housing are integrated into their communities.

In Kent we are tackling different challenges. As the proposed deal covers housing for a range of client groups, we are working for the first time with housing associations that specialise in providing housing for people with learning disabilities, and for those with mental health conditions. We have also devised a package that suits both the county council and ten district councils.

The scale of the work involved and the political and social sensitivities around the housing and care of older people demand upfront consultation, and the winning of hearts and minds. The list of stakeholders is headed by older people and their families, and includes existing housing and care staff, councillors and the wider community, as well as our commercial partners. The re-provision of residential care for older people a decade ago proved a minefield for many local authorities. We must learn the lessons from that.

Crucial to this lesson has been communication with residents, their families and staff. In Oldham, consultation led by the council, as required by law, was a major plank of that strategy and a chance to establish good communications channels with everyone involved.

Securing the support of wardens is also crucial.

In Oldham, we consciously worked with them from a very early stage. Residents and their families trust wardens, who can act as a respected conduit for information between the council, the RSL and the residents.

RSLs are used to working with communities at ground level and are therefore well placed to ensure the wider community is involved in planning and service development. Communities as a whole can – and should – benefit from public spending running into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Our partnership working in Oldham has gone beyond forming a joint PFI team with the council at a very early stage, important though that was. We tied in the tenant steering group during the consultation and planning phases. We also organised demonstration site visits and exhibitions to show that we were making a reality of what can appear to residents as abstract promises, and that the inevitable upheaval would be worth it in the end.

Housing and social services commissioners are seeking solutions to the increasing demands they face, alongside the expectations on them to regenerate their local areas. It is hard to think of other organisations better placed to deliver such contracts than RSLs, with their strong roots in communities.

Melinda Phillips is chief executive of Housing 21, the older people's housing and care organisation


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