Gaps in the fence

Supporting People is now nearly three months old. The start of the
programme did not bring cataclysmic meltdown. The things that
mattered – the provision of support services to people who need
them – continued to happen, although not all providers received
payment in the first month, and many contracts remain unsigned due
to funding disputes.

Supporting People aims to improve the effectiveness of support
services by making the allocation of resources more transparent,
and by introducing new quality assessment systems. The fact that
housing benefit rules no longer govern who can get support means
that services do not have to be attached to a particular building.
They can be shaped much more closely around the service user,
rather than expecting them to be thankful for a “one size fits all”

That’s the theory, and the aim must remain that service users are
placed at the centre. However, the programme can’t do this by
ignoring the needs of the other parties involved – specifically the
support service providers and the housing associations who own the
buildings. The programme was developed in a spirit of partnership;
providers’ expertise was highly valued during the planning stage.
If the relationship slips into a purely cost-driven contractual
one, then we shall all be the poorer. A “take it or leave it”
attitude runs the risk that some providers will leave it.

If service providers are swamped with cash-flow problems,
bureaucracy, unrealistic demands, or if their contract price is
whittled away, then some will be forced out of the market while
others will lose heart and leave. If small providers give up we
lose diversity and choice, and might find the “one size fits all”
to be the only option.

Some, but not all, support services can be delivered within
people’s own homes. Others require specialist buildings, either
because the people prefer to live together, or because the nature
of the support means the service is only cost-effective if provided
on site. If housing associations judge the risks of building
specialist housing to be too high, they can easily divert their
attention elsewhere, into family housing for example. Without new
specialist buildings, it is likely to be those with the most severe
needs who miss out. Housing associations have struggled this year
because of lack of co-ordination between the systems of applying to
the Housing Corporation for capital and the local authority for
revenue. These problems must be ironed out in time for next year’s
bidding round, otherwise we risk prolonged planning blight.

At the three-month mark, are service providers and housing
associations still signed up? The evidence so far is mixed. Service
providers’ confidence was hit hard by the last-minute removal of
promises they thought were secure. The government imposed an
efficiency saving at the eleventh hour, flatly contradicting the
undertaking that all last year’s funding streams would be
transferred, in full, into the Supporting People programme.
Providers were, on the whole, happy to sign the standard Office of
the Deputy Prime Minister-approved contract, but once every legal
department in the country had suggested its own amendments, the
final results were much more mixed. As expected, the amendments
almost universally strengthened the position of local authorities
at the expense of providers.

Those providers in “excellent” authorities have seen many of the
underpinning principles of Supporting People swept away, including
the ring-fence, the need for a Supporting People plan, and the
commitment for neighbouring authorities to co-operate. The
Supporting People team should not have to fight to keep funding
they have inherited in the support system.

Supporting People brings great hopes, including freedom from
buildings, freedom from outdated models of support, and freedom
from service providers who are unfit, or unwilling, to provide a
high quality, user-centred service. The new quality assessment
framework puts users at the centre not only of day-to-day
activities, but also of planning, policy and performance

Supporting People has great potential for improving the quality of
life of people who need support. The run-up to, and early
implementation of, the programme has involved a vast amount of work
by commissioners and providers alike, and much has been achieved.
But within these early stages, some seeds have already been sown
which bode ill for service providers and housing associations.

Kathleen Boyle is a consultant and trainer.

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