The other kind of Tory housing…

7:17 pm - May 31st 2009

by Kate Belgrave    

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A bit more about the realities of evil Tories on the ground, as we prepare to be governed by them:

Parked high outside Hendon Town Hall is one of those wretchedly dated revolving billboards that councils use to spam the masses with unsubstantiated PR bilge: at various turns of the loop, this one proclaims that the Tory Barnet council is ‘working for a healthy community,’ and ‘supporting the vulnerable to live independent and active lives,’ and screeds of other modernisation tripe.

All is not lost, though. There is this evening a nice, large protest group under the billboard – a protest group that is made up of exactly the vulnerable Barnet residents that the council purports to so fervidly support.

These protestors are very pissed off. They are Barnet sheltered housing residents, and they’re picketing this evening’s Barnet council annual meeting to protest at a council proposal to remove permanent on-site wardens (people who help in emergencies, organise GP visits and appointments, and check in with each resident at least once a day) from their sheltered housing blocks and replace the wardens with a ‘floating’ support service, whatever the hell that is. They’re mostly very elderly (in their 80s and even 90s) and at that unlovely point in life where people become too frail to stand. They’re huddled in wheelchairs, or clutching walking-frames, or leaning on carers and chairs.

They’re not too sure what a ‘floating’ support service is, either. The cynics among them have a few ideas – they imagine a system where residents telepathically trip some alarm when dropping dead from heart attack, thus alerting a random officer somewhere in the borough to stop by later on with a shovel.

I understand – kind of – the term ‘floating service’ to mean a support officer of some stripe will stop a various housing blocks across the borough, to meet briefly with anyone who needs – well, supporting.

Bill Campbell, Barnet council’s unnaturally oily senior press creature, refused point-blank to say what a floating service was when I told him that I didn’t quite grasp the idea – Campbell said he couldn’t say what a floating service was until the cabinet voted for or against the concept at its 8 June meeting. I said that someone must know what a floating service was, if only to be in a position to put the concept of it before the cabinet. Campbell said again that he couldn’t say what the concept would be. I thought probably somebody could. This went on for longer than was strictly fascinating. Suffice to say a floating service is not one the council wants to brag about. Let’s return on 8 June.

Back to the protest: long-time (eight years) sheltered housing resident Mary Dorrie, 87, glares across the small lawn at the front of the town hall, where grinning councillors sweep past the wheelchairs and walking-frames, and up the town hall stairs to their meeting. Some avoid the whole scene by driving past it. They pull up at the front door in cabs and fancy cars. The crowd boos each time one arrives.

‘You just can’t answer for this lot,’ says Dorrie furiously, watching councillors disembark from late-model cars and shake hands with various high-vis-dressed coppers as they enter the hall. ‘They’re just going in that door and they’re just smiling, with all old people sitting out here, freezing. I’d love to get inside there.’

Doubtless, she’d be kneecapped if she tried. The protestors say that a very limited number of people were permitted in the public gallery at this evening’s meeting (some say six, and some say seven), and Dorrie’s warden says that sheltered housing residents were refused permission to speak at the meeting anyway.

Bill Campbell tells me that the residents were allowed to contribute – they were permitted to hand a petition to the mayor before the meeting. ‘They got a chance to contribute,’ he says loftily, or something to that effect. I observe to Bill that the person the protestors were allowed to give their petition to was actually the outgoing mayor – yesterday’s man in council politics if there ever was one. The protestors might as well have handed their petition to the spaniel that wandered onto the lawn for a piddle.

There have been other rebuffs: Dorrie and Sylvie Sedgeman, another sheltered housing resident, say they invited councillors to an afternoon-tea session at their block so that they might air their concerns with councillors in a civilised manner. This has yielded thin results thus far: Dorrie and Sedgeman say the invitation hasn’t even been acknowledged.

None of which augers too well for the chances of any off-message responses made to the council’s early-2009 consultation document on sheltered housing support. The council argues that it will save about £950,000 if it shifts from the on-site warden setup to the famous floating service (the council says it needs to find £12m to avoid raising council tax), but nobody here has much patience for that.

Quite a few protestors make dark reference to the £27m the council pissed away in Iceland last year, when the topic of financial shortfalls is raised. The council’s Bill Campbell fluffs around badly on this point, saying that the council is in talks with people in Iceland about retrieving the lost funds (although nobody in Iceland has a bean, so god knows who the council could be talking to, except maybe Bjork). None of the protestors has much of a mind to buy into the ‘public money is tight’ argument right now, either, given that there’s endless lolly to muck out moats, upgrade latrines and put ducks up in style, etc.

Let’s not forget either that Barnet’s had plenty of money for consultancy into its perverted proposal to outsource most of its services to the dingbat private sector (we’ve reported on that here on LC) Rumour also has it (Hendon Labour MP Andrew Dismore has been spreading it) that Barnet councillors have recently awarded themselves a pay rise of over 20%. Campbell – although a senior press officer – says he can’t confirm or deny that one, so he’ll get back to me on it (he hasn’t). He reminds me that MPs are the ones who are at the centre of an expenses scandal. I say that is true, but I’m interested to know if councillors are also in on the act. Campbell also tells me that the Iceland losses have nothing whatsoever to do with the council’s financial shortfall – hardly a surprise. Nobody at this council can add.

The council also argues that the on-site warden model represents an unfair distribution of resources – that not every elderly person in Barnet who needs such support gets it (those who don’t live in sheltered housing, that is) and that some sheltered housing residents don’t use the on-site warden, but still have to pay for the service (each sheltered housing resident pays a service charge).

Thing is – nobody at tonight’s protest is making a noise in favour of the council’s points around ‘fairer’ distribution. Quite the reverse. Michael Byrne, a retired bricklayer who has been in sheltered housing for three years, says he hasn’t had to use the warden’s services yet, but likes to know the warden is there in case the time comes. He can’t believe anyone actively supports a cut, for that reason – quite the reverse, again. ‘Obviously, there’s going to be a backlash. I never thought the council would stoop this low. What are they going to do – wait for something to happen (to one of the residents)?

Plenty happens even with a warden there, Dorrie says. Not so long ago, ‘I collapsed in my flat, and just lay in the bedroom. The warden had the key, so she opened the door.’ She says she’d probably have lain in her flat for days if the warden hadn’t been round to carry out regular checks. A floating warden would need to know where to float – they’d need to be alerted to a resident’s fall, or non-appearance. At the moment, ‘every single person there living on their own has the warden knocking (to check) at least once a day.’

Which is a good thing, says Sedgeman – and not just from the health point of view. There’s the security issue,to think of, and they think about it quite a lot. Prowlers often wander into places where older people live, looking for money and drugs.

‘We had a lady, eight o’clock at night, a man broke into her bedroom window – she was just sitting there – and all of a sudden, this man comes in and goes over to her cupboard and starts opening the drawers.’ A prowler turned up in Sedgeman’s flat, too. She was glad there was a warden onsite that day.

So. The protestors say they couldn’t care less for the independence of which the famous council billboard declares them such lucky recipients. They chose the sheltered housing concept precisely because the presence of an on-site warden meant they could rely on someone other than themselves. In other words, they feel that independence is synonymous with isolation. Which makes sense. Nobody in their right mind looks to romanticise isolation when they’re vulnerable and/or unwell.

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About the author
Kate Belgrave is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a New Zealander who moved to the UK eight years ago. She was a columnist and journalist at the New Zealand Herald and is now a web editor. She writes on issues like public sector cuts, workplace disputes and related topics. She is also interested in abortion rights, and finding fault with religion. Also at: and @hangbitch
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Equality ,Local Government

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Reader comments

The fact that the councillor responsible for this scheme, moved her own mother out of one of the affected homes shortly before the scheme was announced says it all:â??%20wardens%20denies%20impropriety%20on%20mumâ??s%20move

Aren’t they charmers?

Floating support is a standard term used in supported housing. Check or similar for details of provision. The reason why sheltered housing are losing on-site wardens is due to pressures on local councils to ensure their ‘supporting people’ budgets are spent only on supported housing provision. Wardens would often carry out additional tasks that would not be eligible for the ring fenced budget. Social care budgets would have to pay for these, and these budgets are often stretched as it is. Note that floating support provision would almost certainly be in addition to any alarm based system used. I used to work for a local council and tried very hard to justify the cost of the warden services, but compared to the other services we funded it was very difficult. Especially as we were in a environment where our budget was shrinking.

Fair points, Dale – but I think the main issue you raise there is the one at the end – that council budgets are likely to shrink further as national debt worsens, and there are already questions about the priorities chosen for public money.

Barnet council – as it would – claims it’s being squeezed by worsening settlements from a Labour government.

That doesn’t change the fact that the council ill-advisedly invested – and lost, at least thus far – nearly £30m in Iceland, or that it has chosen to spend hundreds and thousands of pounds on consultancy and support as it draws up models for its future shape outsourcing programme.

Asking extremely vulnerable people like sheltered housing residents to make a contribution of nearly £1m to at £12m shortfall starts looking like poor prioritisation in those contexts. Is it – (and this is the question sheltered housing residents were asking when I talked to them) – a question of budgets being impossibly tight, or of other priorities being found for money? People who have been reading stories about moats and duckhouses are not inclined to easily accept the arguments that budgets are tight all round.

Re: floating service – the point I was really trying to make there was about the reluctance of the council guy to explain how Barnet’s version of a floating service for these residents would work.

I think what Dale’s post illustrates is that it can often be difficult to know who you are meant to be protesting against; central or local government? If central, which department, and which policy are the changes being enacted under? Is the local council genuinely squeezed or could it really afford to keep things running if they got management staff to take a 20% pay cut during the hard time? These are difficult questions, and is one of the reasons why greater localism is required before these issues could be dealt with the sensibly.

It is a rather similar situation with post offices. I see campaigns being launched from sites like these all the time campaigning to stop post office privitisation. But, so far as I understand it, some sort of privitisation is now obligatory under EU law, meaning that campaigning to parliament about it is just gonna produce some bemusement and little more.

6. dreamingspire

Local Govt is another area where the Westminster parliament has taken its eye off the ball, allowing the Executive to dump on Local Councils as (with its equally inept Whitehall) it invents more and more expensive and flawed centrally designed (and often centrally operated) services. We keep on hearing of MPs (my own, who is not Labour, included) saying they have been objecting to this and that, but then too many of them either vote for or abstain… They ought to have realised that the central bullying stopped in 2007, so they should literally be counted through the right lobbies.

Nick – I agree very much that the blame for issues presented – to staff and services – by privatisation rests at the doors of central and local government in many of these cases – a local council may outsource a service, for example, but it’s the lack of robustness around TUPE legislation, for example, that is at least in part responsible for the deterioration in salaries and terms and conditions that outsourced staff so often suffer.

Found your last line interesting, though – it is certainly true that protestors often don’t realise exactly who is responsible for their problems – but surely protest can achieve more than bemusement? The refinery workers who went out earlier this year appeared to, and there is some evidence that protest AND presentation of service provision alternatives has beaten privatisation plans – Newcastle staff managed to keep IT services inhouse after presenting council with an alternative plan, and Bristol staff and unions did the same with care services. I don’t know if that means privatisation is obligatory under EU law (someone may have more information on this – I do know tender law for public sector contracts is covered by EU law) – what it may mean is that there are incentives to privatise.

sadly people are angry because they have not got a house, why is that, it’s Thatcher, well actually it’s because new labour has not built a single bloody council house, Blaming the Tories for what labour has not do is totally a waste of time.

Well thank you ‘Dale’ for a local government point of view. However, the situation in Sheltered Housing has nothing to do with the credit crunch. It was decided by central government back in 2003, when they took the support side of Sheltered Housing out of the Housing Benefit (for those on benefits – not all residents in Sheltered Housing are) and relocated them in the Supporting People budget along with those with learning difficulties and drug addicts. They then underfunded the Supporting People budget. The justification for Wardens you speak of comes from the residents themselves. They opted to live in Sheltered Housing normally ‘because it had a warden’ , it is therefore fulfilling a need expressed by the elderly. The justification is, therefore, that you are providing that service to meet that need, and in the knowledge that some things do not always translate easily to a questionnaire

Questions have also been raised in Kate’s blog about what Floating Support does and the above link will help provide some of the information that readers seek


Vernon J Yarker
The Sheltered Housing UK Association

I’m by no means an expert on this and could be totally wrong, but I thought councils were getting millions more in Supporting People budgets which are being moved over from PCTs? That doesn’t mean extra cash for services, because the responsibility moves over as well, but it does give local councils more power to make decisions and prioritise within their budget.

Hopefully someone can clarify that as I’m a bit hazy on it.

11. dreamingspire

Certainly with support for people in care homes and nursing home with LA funding the system has changed, as I have just found out: social work section of the LA and support nurses working together, which is much better than the situation as recently as 4 years ago. So my ancient mother, who will have to move soon from care home to nursing home, now has a joint team not only supporting her and the care home but also helping to find a suitable nursing home or three for us to go and assess.

My Local Authority are trying to close and sell off a significant proportion of our libraries, sport centres etc because they have no money.

And yet, at the same time, they can afford to fund an “Equality Watch Team” .

In fact, they must do so because otherwise they would not be able to comply with the statutory requirement from Central Government to carry out Equality Impact Assessments throughout the region.

I’m telling you, it’s not Orwellian, it’s fucking Kafkaesque.

13. Lilliput

No Pagar – Its PC Lunacy!

“I don’t know if that means privatisation is obligatory under EU law (someone may have more information on this – I do know tender law for public sector contracts is covered by EU law) – what it may mean is that there are incentives to privatise.”

I think the EU leans a bit more heavily on postal service privatisation which is why I used that example specifically. But you are right, that incentives might play a role too (or the idea of “best practice” devised centrally). In such cases, local opposition might be able to make greater headway but if the incentives are always pushing towards a particular model, then all local democratic movements will have an uphill battle to oppose it. Of course, I am, in principle, favourable to more private provision anyway. But I am always suspicious of state-led privatisation plans which rarely seem genuinely to be interested in empowering consumers.

Well, Pagar, Lilliput and all – this is your big problem in local government: PC and whatever lunacy at one end, and capitalist nutters at the other end doing things like gambling in Iceland and with the likes of Jarvis, etc, even as the likes of Jarvis, etc, swish down the toilet, and nobody much doing anything normal – like making sure there’s enough left over to keep wardens in sheltered housing for people who only went into sheltered housing because there were wardens.


Does my head in.

16. dreamingspire

In the matter of privatising public services, we seem so often to do it differently from other EU countries while obeying the same EU laws – health and public transport come to mind fairly quickly. Maybe its the same for social housing, but I’m no expert in that area.

When I mentioned justifying the warden services I was only talking in relation to the guidelines we were obliged to work under. The council could have funded these services separately but were unwilling to do so. If the political will was there then I’m sure the money would have been found.

A huge problem with sheltered housing and social services is that the numbers of older people are increasing. To continue with a similar provision would require more money, which would need more than a few cuts in ‘PC’ schemes to fund. Unfortunately councils have frequently shown themselves incompetent to manage the funds they’re given, and the public are unwilling to pay higher taxes. This just leaves management the option of ‘restructuring’. So sevices are cut and people lose their jobs.

Fair points, Dale.

I guess I would say that, firstly, there are options other than restructuring – giving less to consultants would be one (from my own time in local government, I remember figures in the region of £200,000 for change management programmes, etc. Barnet has apparently spent several hundred thousands pounds on consultancy on its future shape proposals – easily enough to at least partially preserve the sheltered warden scheme if you want to think of it that way. Those sorts of figures go on and on).

Secondly, when management restructures, it generally does so to the detriment of the service and the people lower down the hierarchy – the cleaners, careworkers, housing officers, etc, who actually provide the service. Management certainly doesn’t restructure itself out of a job – at one of the councils I worked at, for example, the number of people earning more than £50,000 had doubled in the previous five years or so. I think you’re right when you say the issue is one of political will. Perhaps as the recession bites, and public services get scarcer – it seems very likely that Cameron will cut public sector funding, and impossible to believe that public sector cuts won’t be a consequence of the banking bailout for whomever is next in government – a closer look will be taken at council priorities and budget allocation.

You are right Dale , the demise of Sheltered Housing is due to new wave thinking. The younger put their faith in assistive technology, but statistics do not bear this out. There are increasing statistics of people being found ‘far too late’ , sometimes up to five weeks after they had fallen, and they had all the alarm systems in place. The problem is that the elderly often feel faint and dizzy or have an arrhythmic heart every day of their waking lives . There is nothing to tell them that ‘today’ it is different and by the time they have hit the floor it is too late. Add to this confusion in old age,: They do not want to make a fuss or lose face so they don’t call a doctor, this latter type need a face to face confrontation with somebody, such as the Warden, to advise them if they should call a doctor, or an ambulance, or not ! An observant Warden can predict or sense a change of behavior and keep an eye on the individual or alert their relatives.

Regardless of the aforesaid, my opinion is that if a person was promised a warden when they first moved into Sheltered Housing then a contract was formed at that point. It does not have to be written an ‘implied contract’ can be just as binding . To unilaterally withdraw a contract calls for a legal response, together with demands for reinstatement and damages for breach of contract

Kind regards

Vernon J Yarker
The Sheltered Housing UK Association

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