The lasting legacy of 'Supporting People' in the UK

It is hard to overstate the influence of the ‘Supporting People’ programme on the development of 'housing related support' (HRS) in the UK. This was one of the key factors in the development of much of the ways of working that we later came to identify with the phrase ‘psychologically informed environment’.

Along with some new thinking in social and community psychiatry, which helped to articulate these developments with new insights, these two are the principal origins of the PIE approach – they provided the intersection of theory and practice – at the beginning of this century.

What may be less obvious is the way that this impact remains formative for services now, twenty years on; and how the definitions of what was ‘SP-eligible’ have a lasting legacy. Yet this is what helps to explain some of the peculiar features of supported housing, and all other ‘HRS’ support services, as they have developed and continue to develop in the UK.


The invention of 'SP'

For a fairly short period – for only three short years at the very start of the 21st century – and for quite idiosyncratic reasons, long since buried in the history of public service administration, the SP programme had allowed a window of opportunity for unprecedented growth, with an un-capped budget, funded from central government. SP identified, named and formally endorsed a new form of welfare support service that had been gradually emerging, but was then defined, in effect for the first time.

There were technically two key criteria for this central government cash. The first was that any services developed must conform to this new specification – broad though it was. The second was that there must be a clear case of a need, that could not be met by other means – that is, by other budgets.

Because of this technical peculiarity in the way the funding was to be released, a distinction was therefore to be made between HRS and any other currently funded forms of care and support.  There was taken to be a clear dividing line, all be it in purely administrative terms, although one that in no way reflected the reality of complex needs in the real world.

In practice it meant that any needs that were anomalies or blind spots, in terms of eligibility for other services’ support, could now be met by HRS. But buried or un-met needs that did not reach the threshold for other services might also count – though this was always a little risky, at the margins. There was a grey area, and services entering this zone were at risk of being deemed ineligible.

But it also meant that there now two parallel systems of welfare provision – ‘care’ and ‘HRS’ - that were henceforth located in two different regulatory frameworks. In the case of ‘care’ services, all these services came under the jurisdiction of the health and social care bodies, and the legislation and national regulatory frameworks that apply there.

Housing-related support, by contrast, was within the jurisdiction of local authorities, and although there was no specific guidance on how local authorities might locate this area, often it was simply assumed to lie in the scope of the housing department.


The values base of SP services, and beyond

By specifying the criteria for activities that could be funded, the SP programme in effect defined, for the first time, this new and specific form of support.  But besides this, as more national guidance was issued, SP also supplied the values, both explicit and implicit, that were to characterise much of this growth.

When in 2003 the window of opportunity then closed, as planned, for a period the new funding was ‘ring fenced’; and the national programme continued to direct the actions of local government in managing the new programmes that had emerged. But later the national programme of SP was dissolved, and the budgets from then on fully integrated into local authority coffers. (In Wales, the SP programme has been retained as a distinct budget; but otherwise in relatively few authorities if any.)

This meant that the more values-based principles that had initially guided the first great expansion of HRS were no longer mandated by central government. But by then, the values had been quite deeply woven into the culture of these provider services; and this tended to entrench them in future funding decisions made at local level. In effect, a culture change had taken place; and so it was that HRS services suddenly found themselves at the forefront of a wider culture change in society.

In particular it was the homelessness services, those most engaged in meeting often long-term and complex needs that had been marginalised or overlooked in other services. These had therefore been among the principal beneficiaries of the SP funding opportunity.  Thus it was that the PIEs approach, and then the more detailed operational framework, was first identified and spelled out at first largely in terms of homelessness services.

The ideas percolating through here were later to reach out to other areas and sectors, wherever services were striving to find ways to meet complex needs that did not readily fit the tightly defined eligibility terms and client group definitions of other services.


The absence of social work in UK homelessness

This peculiar history also helps explain another of the feature of the development of PIEs in the UK that often puzzles services and researchers outside the UK: the fact that in housing related support services it was psychologists, as a profession, that became the principal ‘thought leaders’, rather than social workers, as we tend to find in the rest of the world.

Social work in the UK is categorised as part of social care, and its responsibilities are  focussed of health and social care.  (See : Social work, social inclusion and values-based practice : HERE)  Since SP-funded housing support was by definition outside of social care, there was a vacuum of professionally-trained in-put that was then occupied by psychologists.

It is this, among other things, that had contributed to the assumption that 'being psychologically informed' meant 'being informed by psychologists' ( See : What psychology? :  HERE)




Further background reading/listening/viewing

PIElink pages

Supporting People (wikipedia summary)  : HERE

Where did it all come from? : HERE

Is the PIE evolving (Summary) : HERE

Social work, social inclusion and values-based practice : HERE

Theory and practice : HERE

The ethics and politics of PIEs : HERE

Relationships and complex needs : HERE


Library items

In search of the enabling environment : HERE

They do things differently there: PIEs, Housing First and the new social psychiatry : HERE

A very brief history of PIEs  HERE

Do complex needs need complex needs services?  (Pt 1) : HERE

This is not a pipe : HERE