All citizens shall be equal

All citizens shall be equal

There’s been a lot of talk about social care budgets being squeezed and it’s usually the elderly who get the headlines. But those citizens with learning disabilities are facing just as much uncertainty. Gary Mead talked to a company whose mission is to provide accommodation for this group in our society.

Golden Lane Housing (GLH) is one of those quiet, unsung entities that, if it didn’t exist, the lives of many individuals would be incomparably worse. Since 1998, this independent charity, a subsidiary of Mencap, the learning disability charity, has been providing housing for people with learning disabilities. It says its mission is to help “people with a learning disability to find the right home, with the right support to enable them to live independently.”

There are many ways in which one can judge how successful a society is. One of them is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, such as people with a learning disability.

On that score, we live in what can only be termed a rudimentary society, one where we are only now starting to acknowledge certain truths. Such as – people with learning disabilities are citizens, with rights such as any other citizen. One of those rights includes the right to care and support from the rest of us who don’t have learning difficulties.

According to GLH, around 1.5 million UK citizens have a learning disability; only 15% of those have some form of tenancy or ownership of their own home. What of the other 85%? Presumably they are living with their family or in a long stay institution, and that may suit both them and their family. But the assumption of many of us is that they have made a choice about their living – whereas in reality that often isn’t the case.

We talked to Alastair Graham, Director of GLH (pictured above), to find out more. We kicked off by talking about the relationship with Mencap. “It offers great flexibility including in terms of raising funds from different sources. Back in 1998 Mencap were very conscious of how hard it was for people with learning disabilities to get access to decent housing. So they set up Golden Lane Housing to help address that problem. Back then we bought our first property and since then we’ve acquired a much bigger portfolio. So now we have housing for more than 1,700 people across most local authorities in England, some in Wales, and one or two in Northern Ireland,” says Graham. “By being a subsidiary, we’ve been able to raise money from private lenders, financiers and more recently our two bond issues, which were backed by the assets we have and hold in our own name.”

For Graham, the need for social housing designated for people with learning disabilities is clear: “We still have far too many people with learning disabilities living in institutional environments, not because that’s where they want to live, but because there’s not a suitable alternative. Probably the worst example of this is that there are more than 3,000 people with a learning disability that are living in hospitals – they don’t need to be in hospital, but there’s no community-based housing available for them. Or they live in hospital-type settings called assessment and treatment units, where they’re neither being assessed nor treated, but more or less just warehoused there, for lack of supported housing.”

This kind of people-dumping is a social indictment. But as Graham points out, “this is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s difficult enough for anyone to get decent housing these days; with a learning disability it can be almost impossible. The housing crisis that we are all aware of is particularly acute for people with a learning disability, who are living in institutions, or with mum and dad, who in many cases are increasingly unable to cope. The parents are getting older and are often frail themselves, and are worrying about what’s going to happen to their child when they can no longer cope.”

As Graham says, this is an area of society that is often completely overlooked, yet no individual should be left behind. “I don’t think it gets quite the media exposure that it could do. A lot of the social care coverage has been around elderly people, quite understandably, people ‘bed-blocking’. But the same is happening to people with learning difficulties, where people can’t get out of long-stay institutions, can’t get out of hospitals, for lack of supported housing. That’s a crisis not only of housing but also of the social care funding to look after people while they are living in supported housing.”

Golden Lane Housing provides the bricks-and-mortar, and the housing management and maintenance. Mencap, along with a range of other support providers, gives the personal support to Golden Lane Housing’s tenants but, as Graham indicates, “crucially the funding for that has to come from the local care authority’s social care budget and that’s being repeatedly squeezed. Even if we can provide the housing, if the council can’t provide the funding for the necessary care package, then the person languishing in their current setting is left high and dry. This problem is undoubtedly getting worse. I’ve been at Golden Lane Housing for six years. When I started we were providing housing for people with mild to moderate learning disabilities who didn’t need that much in terms of adaptation to the housing. Whereas now, our new referrals tend to be people with much higher support-level needs, challenging behaviour, sometimes with multiple learning disabilities; basically what’s happened is that the threshold for adult social care funding has been raised – the bar keeps being raised year by year. That’s just on the social care side. On the housing side – with not enough new housing being built – that’s a bigger problem but one for our clients too.” For Graham, that’s where the bonds the company has issued are particularly relevant. The bonds – which have raised a total of £21 million – have meant it’s been able to acquire and adapt housing without any capital grant, without any capital subsidy from government or anywhere else.

Underlying this is a much bigger question, one that Graham observes and about which GLH comments – which is to do with the failure of national and local government to do some joined-up thinking about budgets. Says Graham: “Sometimes it’s not a question of there not being enough money; it’s a question of the money being in different pots. The people living in assessment and treatment units, they’re costing an enormous amount of money but usually these costs are attributable to the health budget, whereas if they moved into supported housing, overall that would cost the public purse less; but it would be charged to the adult social care budget and a charge to the housing benefit budget. But if you put those two together, it would still be far less than the state is currently paying through the health budget. Sometimes it’s just a case of there not being enough flexibility in the system, rather than not enough money.”

GLH joined the Social Stock exchange a couple of years ago because, in part, “we were keen to publicise the work we do, the bonds in particular,” says Graham. “We think there’s a real opportunity for other organisations to go down a different route, like we have done. And the other thing is to let the broader investor community know what we have done. We’ve managed to find a model that works, to generate a decent return from a commercial point of view – 4% year-on-year, and you get your money back at the end of the term – as well as a social impact. Through being a member of the Social Stock Exchange we’ve been able to demonstrate how those work together.”

GLH is doing good work and showing investors a healthy return. But let’s not lose sight of the bigger background picture. As a society we’re justly proud of our independence and that we treat everyone as equals. We like to think that no citizen gets swept under the carpet and ignored. It’s always rather shameful when you discover that’s exactly what’s happening to some fellow citizens.