Dozens of vulnerable people in five properties in Brighton and Hove were faced with losing their home in a week’s time as NHS officials struggled to arrange support.
They are cared for under the “high to medium mental health supported accommodation service” which is funded jointly by the new integrated care board, NHS Sussex, and Brighton and Hove City Council.
For the past five years the contracts to provide care for up to 60 people with complex mental health needs have been fulfilled by Sanctuary housing association and BHT Sussex, formerly Brighton Housing Trust.
But problems started shortly after a tendering process this year when NHS commissioners opted to award the contracts to SJOG (St John of God Hospitaller Services).
SJOG, based in Darlington, Co Durham, submitted the cheapest tender to provide the service – although the existing providers were marked better for quality.
But SJOG did not have premises in Brighton and Hove and its efforts to agree a lease at the Old Brewery, also known as Le Carbone, in Portslade Old Village, proved controversial.
Unlike other local charities – notably the YMCA and Emmaus – SJOG came under fire for making too little effort to communicate in a timely manner with people living in the area.
The building did not have planning permission for the proposed use – it was being marketed as an upmarket scheme consisting of high-end apartments.
In any event the building was not ready to be occupied when SJOG was due to take over the contracts – and the charity has since said that it cannot provide the service.
NHS Sussex had already asked BHT Sussex and Sanctuary to keep providing the service for an extra month. And it has since extended the contract by a further month – to Wednesday 30 November.
The health service commissioners asked the two local charities to set out the cost of continuing to provide the service for a further year or two years so that a deal could be concluded.
But in the meantime, it has emerged that NHS Sussex had started scouting around for an alternative provider.
BHT Sussex chief executive Andy Winter wrote to the director of mental health commissioning at NHS Sussex, Alison Edgington.
After receiving no reply, he emailed Green councillor Sue Shanks who chairs the Brighton and Hove City Council Health and Wellbeing Board.
His email to Councillor Shanks said: “I am writing to you … to draw your attention to the latest negative turn of events in the provision of high to medium mental health supported accommodation in the city following the collapse of the St John of God proposal.
“My purpose in writing to you is to highlight the ongoing failure of commissioners to resolve the uncertainty regarding this provision.
“Our current service will close on (Wednesday) 30 November unless a viable agreement is reached between us and NHS Sussex and the city council.
“I feel that we have been strung along for several weeks and have now heard that a new procurement exercise has commenced.
“Please see the email below which I sent yesterday to Alison Edgington, director of mental health commissioning NHS Sussex, which sets out the sequence of events which has led me to take the unprecedented step to write to you and your colleagues.
“It is my belief that we have not been treated in good faith and the matter must now, as a matter of urgency, be taken out of the hands of the commissioning team that has so clearly failed to protect the security and wellbeing of vulnerable clients.
“It is time for senior councillors and more senior officers at both the city council and NHS Sussex to intervene.”
The email to Alison Edgington said: “I am writing to express my deep unhappiness about the way BHT Sussex has been treated over the procurement of the high to medium mental health supported accommodation service in Brighton and Hove.
“I have grave concerns about the impact this continues to have, primarily, on our clients and, secondly, our staff.
“Over the last six weeks or so, the St John of God fiasco has involved a complete and ongoing breakdown in the commissioning process.
This has been evidenced, firstly, by a failure by SJOG to secure accommodation and, secondly, inadequate or non-existent communication with clients and staff, all of whom were due to transfer imminently to the new provider.
“We are yet to receive any communications from St John of God but that comes as no surprise given their failure to effectively engage with us and, again, our clients and staff since their plans for the Portslade property became public knowledge.
“At our meeting on (Friday) 28 October, you advised us that NHS Sussex would not be awarding the contract to SJOG, that you were abandoning the procurement process, that you wished to award a contract to the second and third placed bidders (Sanctuary and BHT Sussex) and that you wished to meet the following week to agree a way forward.
“We have appreciated your acknowledgement that the original specification (agreed before you took up your current post) had been ill-conceived. We welcomed your offer to be consulted on a revised specification before procurement recommenced.
“Throughout you have said that you were seeking our support and expressed appreciation for our commitment to protect the interests of our clients.
“You have said that you wished us to work with NHS Sussex and asked for costings for the extension of our contract that is due to end on (Wednesday) 30 November.
“You requested costings for a one and two-year extension. We provided costings for a two-year extension, advising you that a one-year extension was not viable from our perspective in relation to the remobilisation of a service that, at the request of the commissioners, has been in the process of demobilisation.
“This has involved considerable inconvenience and distress to clients, the loss of several members of staff and additional cost to the organisation.
“At our meeting on (Friday) 4 November, you asked that we review our costings, which we did and resubmitted on (Tuesday) 8 November.
“The subsequent meeting with you and your colleagues, scheduled for (Wednesday 9 November), to discuss the costings, was cancelled by you on (Tuesday 8 November).
“You wrote: ‘We are going through the details with our exec team and won’t be quite ready to meet.’ That meeting has yet to be rescheduled.
“In light of this, you can imagine our surprise to receive your message yesterday (Monday 14 November) that you are now ‘in the formal procurement process’.
“We are dismayed that (given we submitted, at your request, revised costings and had our most recent meeting cancelled by you) there was not even a courtesy phone call or email saying that your commissioning plans had changed.
“Knowing how long it takes to get ‘sign-off’ of a tender, it must have been in the process throughout our discussions and during the period when you were asking us for costings for an extension to our contract.
“This whole saga, from the outset, has revealed a dismal failure of the commissioning process.
“Having been involved in commissioning processes for over 30 years, I can say, without any hesitation or doubt, that this is by far the worst handled and most damaging process we have experienced.
“The bottom line is that the commissioners have shown little regard, in spite of your protestations, to the security and wellbeing of particularly vulnerable clients and also our staff.
“It has also shown little respect for a third sector partner or consideration for the stability of the local supported housing market.
“When we raised concerns several months ago regarding the failure of SJOG to secure appropriate accommodation, we were told by Josh Hall that that was ‘SJOG’s risk’.
“SJOG has walked away from the contract and, for the last six weeks, BHT Sussex and Sanctuary have been left trying to pick up the pieces.
“It is our clients who continue to live in a state of insecurity, not knowing where they will live in a little over two weeks’ time and who will be providing care and support to them.
“I would urge NHS Sussex and Brighton and Hove City Council to return to the discussions we have been having for several weeks with a view to agreeing a two-year extension to our contract based on our revised costings, and in the context of finalising a full five-year contract with Sanctuary and BHT Sussex as the second and third-placed bidders.
“Given all the assurances and undertakings you personally have given us in recent weeks, I would like to think that you may have been overruled on this matter.
“If this is the case, please will you escalate this matter and copy this email to the person or persons who have made this decision.
“In the meanwhile, I propose to copy this email to Councillor Sue Shanks and other politicians who I know are concerned about how this whole matter has been, and continues to be, handled.”
Brighton and Hove News has approached NHS Sussex and BHT Sussex for comment.
BHT Sussex said that it would be inappropriate to comment at that time.
One of those responsible for caring for people under the existing contracts said: “We look after people who no one else would house and if we didn’t house them then they would be out on the streets and causing problems.”
LIKE WHAT WE DO? HELP US TO DO MORE OF IT BY DONATING HERE.