Solid foundations?

“Boo. Supporting People.” Yes, the very name of this housing
policy is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many of those
who must implement it. Supporting People seems to be one of those
initiatives that invite us to bury our heads in the sand and hope
it will pass. We know it’s big. We know it has something to do with
housing benefit (and who in the world understands housing benefit).
And we have got a horrible feeling that it is going to mean more
work for us.

Even if you know roughly what Supporting People is about, the
chances are you have at most a patchy idea of how it will affect
the work of your organisation, what preparations are involved or
what the timetable for implementation is.

Supporting People will transfer responsibility for funding those
support services that are currently linked to housing from the
social security budget to local authorities. By 2003 support now
financed through housing benefit – to people in sheltered housing,
women’s refuges and hostels for people with mental health problems
for example – will be funded by local authorities, and social
services will play a key role. Sounds simple, but the process of
getting to that point without major casualties is complex, and the
few people who understand what is really involved are frantically
trying to wake the rest of us before it is too late.

The biggest worry at the moment, for organisations representing
both providers and local authorities, is that the pot of money
won’t be big enough. The process of change from funding through
housing benefit to funding through Supporting People has already
started with the introduction of transitional housing benefit.
Providers now have to state what proportion of rent pays for
housing costs and what proportion pays for support costs. The pot
of money available to councils for Supporting People will be partly
based on the support costs declared by the providers in their
areas. The National Housing Federation’s policy officer Fahmeeda
Gill is concerned that providers are unwisely underestimating their
support costs to maximise the amount of housing benefit they
continue to receive after 2003. “This is a high risk strategy on
their behalf as we have rent restructuring in the pipeline, and it
will lead the government to underestimate the total cost of

The Local Government Association has similar concerns but for
different reasons. Housing policy officer Gwyneth Taylor explains:
“We have to make sure we identify and trap all the various
recipients of funding so we have an accurate picture of the current
pot. We also need room for growth.

“There is an issue about funding the additional work the
government wants local authorities to take on. We welcome the broad
principles of Supporting People but there are extensive
administrative and monitoring implications for us. All this is
going to cost money and we don’t want to see it coming out of the
pot for support.”

Provider organisations have other worries. John Belcher, chief
executive of the Anchor Trust, told a workshop at last year’s
annual social services conference of fears that local authorities
would channel funds away from low level, preventive sheltered
housing services and towards the most frail and dependent clients,
as they have done with their own adult services. Peter Walters,
chief executive of the English Churches Housing Association told
the same workshop that social services staff needed to learn about
the needs and circumstances of the client groups receiving
supported housing. A high proportion were self-referred homeless
people with additional needs who are not currently part of social
services’ core business.

Other provider groups share similar concerns. Linda Delahay is
national housing officer for the Women’s Aid Federation of England.
She says: “The important thing is that local authorities start
consulting with all the providers of supported housing in their
boroughs so they understand what is happening. They need to know
what the existing services are before they start looking for unmet
need, but they are not doing this in a meaningful way.

“Where they are consulting with providers, small providers such
as women’s refuges are either not being invited into the process or
they cannot afford to participate because they have got a house
full of women and children in crisis and only one and a half

Delahay admits that there is some anxiety within Women’s Aid
Federation of England about social services’ future role. “Our
experience is that social services have not been responsive to the
needs of women and children fleeing domestic violence. To get
social services to fund a children’s worker in a refuge is like
pulling teeth. Only 25 per cent of children’s workers in refuges
are funded by social services, but all those children are by
definition children in need.

“Some departments are already looking to build their own
fiefdoms instead of finding out what is happening on their
doorsteps. We know of one authority that wants to build a refuge
just for women from that authority. We believe they should not be
allowed to contract refuge services only for women in their areas.
Women have to move around, sometimes because of fear of being
traced by a violent partner but more often because the local refuge
is full.”

Terry Butler, director of social services in Hampshire, is
sympathetic to the apprehension of provider organisations, but
believes many of their concerns are premature.

“Directors of social services are keen to extend their brief to
preventive work, to low level support, to offering more choice to
vulnerable people. We do not enjoy only operating at the hard

“We are also going to be scrutinised very carefully – both on
how we are managing the transitional arrangements and implementing
supporting people.

“I accept that there is a training and development challenge for
local authorities and they may need to bring people in from other
organisations including, possibly, providers. But the funds for
providing the initial infrastructure are far more generous than the
funds we had to prepare for the community care reforms of 1993.

“Supporting People is not there to bale out community care
services. What we found then was that the first two or three years
funding was fairly generous, but from that point onwards it got
more and more difficult and there was not enough money in the long
term. We must avoid that this time. Supporting People needs to
remain well-funded.”

For further information, see Department of the Environment,
Transport and the Regions, Supporting People: Policy into
Practice, 2001, at websites:

The nuts and bolts

Key features of Supporting People:

Housing benefit will no longer cover the costs of support for
people using supported housing services such as hostels for
homeless people and people with mental health or drug and alcohol
problems, women’s refuges and sheltered housing for older people or
people with learning difficulties.

Instead local authorities will be responsible for planning and
commissioning all housing-related support services.

A key aim of the scheme is flexibility in the long term. Instead
of provision developing in an ad-hoc fashion with users having to
fit into existing services there will be scope for commissioning
services which match need more closely. This will be achieved
through local Supporting People strategies.

For example, instead of tying low-level support to specific
accommodation, it could be offered to, for example, a teenage
mother, in her own flat.

Or money could be diverted into home improvement schemes to
enable older people to stay in their own homes. At the same time,
stable housing with basic support could mean independence for some
people currently living in institutional settings.

Under the scheme all housing-related support will be reviewed
and commissioned on a three-yearly cycle by the local authority.
Any changes or closures will take place a year after the

A cross-authority fund will cater for people such as women
fleeing domestic violence, and transient young homeless people.

Existing users of sheltered housing, and short-term users such
as refuge residents will be protected from charges, but long-term
services for new users will be subject to charging.

It is envisaged that, eventually, Supporting People funds will
be allocated according to a national formula based on indicators of
local need.

The government has set aside £138 million over three years
to prepare for the changes, with the first tranche available on 1

Timetable for change

The scheme starts in April 2003. By March 2002 local authorities
must have:

  • Produced a comprehensive map of the local supply of support
    services including those provided by the council itself, registered
    social landlords, voluntary sector agencies, NHS trusts, private
    sector organisations and landlords, and the probation service.
  • Mapped local need for support and identified gaps in local
  • Developed a strategy for getting the views of clients
  • Visited local providers for all client groups and become
    familiar with the range of local services and providers
  • Discussed with providers future developments including possible
    changes to services

By August 2002 local authorities should have prepared, with
their partners, a shadow Supporting People strategy. From November
2002 they should have a comprehensive list of all existing
providers, and the amount of grant to be paid to each from April
2003. The first Supporting People strategies will be produced in

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