LETTER: ‘It is clear that Citizens Advice Rural Cambs has struggled to deliver all of the service level agreement’ says East Cambs Council leader as grant is axed

Cllr Anna Bailey, leader of East Cambs District Council.

Cllr Anna Bailey, leader of East Cambs District Council. - Credit: Archant

I hope people will take the trouble to read this statement about why East Cambridgeshire District Council has taken the decision it has in relation to the Citizens Advice Rural Cambs (CARC) grant.

I want to start by saying that I am very grateful to CARC and its volunteers for the service that it has delivered to our community on behalf of the council over a number of years. The decision by the council is in no way to denigrate the staff, the volunteers or the service that they have provided.

In 2017 CARC met with the council to express its concern that it was unable to continue running the service on behalf of the council without an increase in funding, stating it needed £90k per annum to continue - almost double the existing level of funding. Clearly, this necessitated a review of the arrangements and the need for a plan to ensure we could continue to provide the service that CARC was currently delivering for the Council.

The council has a statutory duty to provide a housing and homelessness prevention service. Some councils take a narrow view of this and those councils often have a significant homelessness problem. Councils like ours take a wide view, tackling the causes of homelessness, not just the housing issues - these councils are doing the best job of preventing homelessness.

It is important to note that the service level agreement with CARC is specifically for supporting people at the first point of contact and not for the ongoing hand-holding support service, for which CARC receives separate funding from the Money Advice Service.

Back in 2012 the district council was spending hundreds of thousands of pounds every year placing people in temporary B&B accommodation - this is bad for individuals, bad for families, delivers bad outcomes, and is bad for taxpayers.

In 2012 we took drastic action to improve the situation, and since then we have not spent a single penny on temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. We have been able to do this by working preventatively with people - getting to people as early as possible, before they get into crisis.

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We also support people holistically - helping them to tackle all of their issues to get their life back on track. Our Housing Team runs one of the very best services in the country and we are lucky to have them.

In the knowledge that CARC had stated it could not continue with its current level of funding, we met with them in early 2019 to inform them that we were carrying out a review and therefore that they should not necessarily rely on the funding in the future.

Alongside this, Government decided to provide additional funding to Councils to deliver the aims of the Homelessness Reduction Act. This funding is specifically for the statutory functions of the council with an emphasis on early intervention and prevention. Unless we were to outsource our whole housing service, that money cannot be used to pay external organisations. Government has recently reviewed our plans for the HRA funding and has stated that our proposals provide a truly holistic and preventative service and are exactly how the money should be used.

The outcome of the review showed that there was much duplication of the service - 80 per cent of the issues that people were being supported with were being carried out by both organisations. Anecdotally, we were also aware that the same people were sometimes going to both organisations.

It is also clear that CARC has struggled to deliver all of the service level agreement - it has been unable to deliver the outreach service in Soham and Littleport that is part of the agreement.

It has also found itself having to triage people and offer forward appointments, in some cases meaning people have to wait a considerable length of time to get help. And it has not yet been able to provide people with open digital access, for support with things like Universal Credit, meaning people may be delayed with making claims and having to back claim with all the consequences of that.

The district council is investing more money and resource into the new service, taking on four new posts. The council is able to provide a truly preventative, holistic, accessible and immediately responsive service.

The additional resources mean that our drop-in will be able to open 40 hours a week for face to face immediate support, and we also offer an out of hours service.

We provide open digital access where we can help people immediately with claims that have to be done online. We are also able to meet with people in their own homes, and we run Community Hubs in Ely, Stretham, Earith, and two in Littleport.

We are opening new Hubs in Soham, Sutton and Bottisham. The Hubs are safe, informal spaces, supported by multiple agencies, designed to make the service more accessible to people that may feel worried about approaching the council.

By bringing the service in house, we have been able to make best use of the ring-fenced funding from Government, money that cannot be used to fund external organisations.

The council is not closing CARC and we continue to support them with rent free premises (£1 per annum). CARC continues to receive funding from central Government and other sources to deliver support to East Cambs residents.

We have met with CARC and the National CAB Association and have made an offer to their employed staff that will help their funding situation; we would also welcome the opportunity to support the work of the CARC volunteers who we think would be hugely valuable to our community hub service.

I appreciate that this decision has concerned many people. However, my job is to provide the best possible service that I can to our residents.

The decision taken by the council has been done for the good of our residents that need us, just that. I truly believe that the new service will provide the most preventative, holistic, accessible and immediate service possible to our residents.

We will do whatever it takes to support people at the time they need us to get their lives back on track.