An under-recognised cohort of local supported housing charities is already doing the hard work of levelling up – and could do a lot more.

This government staked its political future on ‘levelling up’ Britain – meaning reducing geographic inequalities by improving left behind places and the lives lived in them. As the recent Levelling Up White Paper acknowledges, this goal will require overcoming a lot of complex and deeply entrenched problems – such as the vexed question of how powers and responsibilities should be shared between local, regional and national tiers. Everyone recognises that the British state is highly centralised, that after a decade of austerity local government is stretched very thin, and that regional devolution is, at best, unfinished business.

The White Paper included serious pledges to continue devolution, with more elected mayors for counties and city-regions. But with the best will in the world, this sort of constitutional reform is notoriously slow, contentious and risky, and the government needs to see results soon. It needs trusted, expert partners that can deliver quality services in disadvantaged local communities now.

Fortunately, there is already a cohort of hidden champions out there doing just that – which, with a bit of help, could do much more. Supported housing charities provide homes and expert support for some of the most vulnerable people, particularly in left behind communities. Whether they specialise in helping homeless people, those fleeing domestic abuse, care leavers or other groups, these charities invariably have deep local roots and really know the places and communities they serve. Yet precisely because of their locally embedded nature, few are household names, meaning they get little attention from national media or policy debates.

SASC’s work over the last few years has kept bringing us into contact with inspiring organisations like this, and we think they deserve more support and recognition. Truth be told, when SASC started operating we had little idea what sort of organisations we would find operating in the third sector. We still have lots to learn, but after eight years of lending and £53m of approved loans from our Social and Sustainable Housing fund, we have a much better sense of the range of organisations out there. While there is a lot of diversity among these charities, some key features stand out.

First is their professionalism. Terms like ‘charity’ and ‘voluntary sector’ might imply well-meaning amateurism – but these organisations are serious businesses running highly professional operations. They have to be: SASH borrowers derive almost all their income from contracts to support vulnerable people, generally issued competitively by local or national government. This demands a high-quality workforce to deliver on tight margins, and most of their employees are paid, not volunteers.

Secondly, their scale. Compared to, say, global companies or national housing associations, these locally based organisations are undoubtedly small. But they are much bigger than the vast majority of charities: over 95% of the Charity Commission’s 166,000 registered charities have annual income of less than £1 million. The median SASH borrower has 125 employees, which ranks it among the largest 1 per cent of commercial businesses in the UK.

Many can show long track records of success. On average, the organisations SASH lends to were incorporated about 30 years ago; the youngest was established seven years ago. To put this in perspective, more than half of all new for-profit small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) fail to survive for more than five years, and only about one-quarter of the UK’s 6 million SMEs are more than ten years old.

Against that background, SASH borrowers start to look like pretty robust, professional organisations, especially considering how tough the last decade or so has been for frontline public service providers. Total local government revenues, from which SASH borrowers get their contracts, fell in real terms by one-fifth between 2009/10 and 2018/19. The fact that these charities are still around and looking to grow after 30 years shows that they have been entrepreneurial enough to make ends meet in a hostile climate. So it’s no surprise that local authorities see many SASH borrowers as their go-to partners for managing some of the toughest service challenges they face.

And yet despite this impressive track record, these support charities are not widely recognised for the amazing work they do, and barely appear on the government’s radar. This may be because they fall into the middle ground between massive, national organisations and micro community organisations. They are also operating in a complex, fragmented sector that few people understand well. But most of all it may be that they are just more focused on delivering great support services in their own patches, and don’t have the platform or the inclination to shout about it that much.

Hopefully the government’s commitment to levelling up by empowering local communities means that organisations like these may start to get the recognition they deserve. After all, a government that wants to find efficient ways to level up left behind communities and improve life for vulnerable people should be keen to support the kind of organisations that SASH works with. We think that means helping these expert charities to expand their services by acquiring homes themselves, on terms that work for them. In April SASC is launching a new £125m fund to provide the finance for them – we hope government will play its part by recognising the vital role these charities perform and smoothing their path to growth.

Peter Morris
Director of Research

Toby Lloyd
External Affairs Consultant

Read the rest of our series – here

  1. A new way to finance supported housing 
  2. Housing Crisis? What Housing Crisis?
  3. Hidden Charity Champions
  4. Social and sustainable: why owning can be better than renting for supported housing providers
  5. Comparing models for financing transitional supported housing (TSH)