BLOG: Home improvement services – national challenges and local experiences
Published: 15 Mar, 2024

The national evaluation of home improvement services in England – carried out by the Building Research Establishment, Foundations, Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Sheffield, and the University of Stirling – continues. In the latest blog in our Housing and home improvement series, we spotlight some of the issues that are emerging so far.  

Diversity of offer

The home improvement sector is very diverse nationally; whilst administration and delivery of the Disabled Facilities Grant – funding home adaptations – remains a core part of many models, this is often just one part of a multi-stringed bow. Indeed, our case study organisations’ local offers include handy person services delivering small repairs, minor and major adaptations, extensions, hospital discharge schemes, affordable warmth initiatives, energy retrofit, hoarding support, and innovative financing offers.

Such diversification is part of building and maintaining a viable long-term service – being innovative to deliver outcomes for people, in a context in which funding can be unpredictable – but it also means organisations can be responsive to local needs as they change. Home improvement services have been likened to a “Swiss army knife” – able to find the right skills / services to meet many needs.

Utilising so many different mechanisms to improve the quality of people’s homes can also have its challenges. It can make it harder to compare services, because the model of delivery and the range of services can be very different geographically. This variation can also mean that customers may be affected by uneven access to different forms of support. One question is therefore how the benefits that come from localism can be achieved, but without the risk of losing services in some areas – particularly during times of financial pressure.

“With DFG there’s the national legislation so there’s…a minimum base level that local authorities have to deliver…because that that’s what’s in the legislation. But for anything else, there’s not that so it would be voluntary”

This could mean thinking about some core of foundational services that all areas should have, as a statutory requirement, and then building from that base to meet local needs and priorities. Is it time to have a range of statutory minimum services in all areas, beyond Disabled Facilities Grants?

Changing societal trends

Several long-term societal changes will have a direct impact on the work of home improvement services. The first is the shift in tenure that we have seen over several decades, with a growth in private renting. More people are living in private rented housing, for longer. Older renters are a growing group, and over time the issue of adapting these homes as residents age will become more prominent. This raises challenges for home improvement services– ensuring that private renters know that adaptation is an option for them; negotiating permission for adaptations from private landlords; working in partnership with private sector housing teams; and thinking about how to fund the removal of adaptations at the end of tenancies.

As the population ages, there will be growing demand for home adaptations. In some cases, ageing in place and discharge from hospital can be facilitated by quite minor changes to the home – the value of a service which can make these adaptations in a timely manner is significant. Projecting anticipated levels of need into the future, so this can be planned for, is crucial, and partners working across housing, health and social care should be at the heart of developing this understanding of needs. However, many areas will be grappling with very challenging financial conditions; local authority finances have been under sustained pressure for over a decade. Delivering the help that people need without significantly increasing funding will mean difficult decisions, and may mean restricting eligibility to services.

The Covid-19 pandemic had a major impact on the organisation and delivery of services. Many services are stepping back from home visits to phone or online appointments, and there are fewer organisations with access to people’s homes, who may notice problems. As home improvement services are very much oriented towards understanding the home environment, and are trusted within that space, there are opportunities to pick up challenges, refer on to other services, or carry out assessments within the home by a multi-skilled individual. We can see this, for example, in the way some organisations have trained handypersons as trusted assessors so that they can carry out needs assessments for non-complex home adaptations.

Finally, many organisations are seeing increased demand for services and more complex cases, against a backdrop of a very challenging financial context. As demand is increasing, the cost of funding work has soared, particularly in the last few years due to high inflation. This has resulted in significant increases in the cost of contractors, materials, and making adaptations to the home. But the cap for Disabled Facilities Grants remains fixed, making it more and more difficult to finance adaptations. There is a growing gap between what standard funding routes will pay, and the cost of making changes to the home to meet the required needs, especially for cases which are more complex and may require a range of interventions and more extensive adaptations. What are the options for households in which needs exceed the available funding thresholds?

New landscape for commissioning

The framework for commissioning home improvement services has also changed significantly. Disabled Facilities Grants are now a part of the Better Care Fund, whilst Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) have been replaced by Integrated Care Boards (ICBs). There is growing attention to the importance of prevention, particularly services that can prevent costs to health and social care services. However, to gain a more nuanced understanding of the value of preventative services, organisations need access to the best available data – this may require multiple partners to facilitate access to data on, for example, avoidance of hospital admission / readmission.

“…in terms of what the system gains from it… [it] is significant but it’s really hard to capture those outcomes from the HIA or the adaptation service cause…the data is not joined up”

All home improvement services have access to a range of data through which they can demonstrate the value and effectiveness of their different services. However, developing strong relationships between services and commissioners is also important – commissioners need to understand what home improvement services do, the difference they make, and their capacity to effect real improvements in people’s lives. This takes time and being able to build trust and confidence in a service’s ability to deliver. A strong relationship is also important because home improvement services are often “working in the gaps between other services” such as health, housing, and social care, which can hide some of the value of services. It is also the case that although key performance indicators are important, case studies and work around the wider wellbeing impacts of home improvements can also be powerful tools for conversations with commissioners.

These are just some of the issues coming through in our conversations nationally and locally. Evaluation activities continue and we are keen to hear from stakeholders whose insight can shape our thinking – please contact gareth.young@sheffield.ac.uk.

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