Kate Massey-Chase discusses the impact of personal budgets on participants at CoolTan Arts.

Image of poetry workshop
Kate at a workshop on International Women’s Day

From September to July last year, CoolTan Arts, a charity run by and for adults with mental distress, ran a women’s poetry group, which I facilitated. With a strong belief that mental wellbeing is enhanced by the power of creativity, its Chief Executive Michelle Baharier identified two reasons in particular to set up a women’s poetry group: “First, the cathartic nature of words and second, because in a male-dominated society women's spaces remain important.” At the end of the project CoolTan published an anthology of the participants’ work, a platform for the women’s voices and recognition of their talent.

Since March 2011, however, CoolTan has lost 100% of its service-level agreement with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in the wake of the ‘Personalisation’ programme of personal budgets, introduced by the Department of Health (DoH). Personal budgets are an allocation of funding given to someone based on an assessment of their needs, intended to help them design a package of social care support so that they gain more control over the services they need. Rolled out in England since 2008, although the original target of having all council-funded service-users on personal budgets has now been pushed back from April 2013 to 2015, it remains the future of social care funding. Intended to empower those in need of community care services through greater choice and control, in practice it is hard to determine whether personalisation is triggering more service-user involvement or estrangement.

Staying abreast of changes in policy and provision is fundamental to preparing for any arts work in the margins

Applying for a personal health budget can be a daunting process − a 30-page assessment form, with different criteria for eligibility in different boroughs. Speaking to Edward Omeni, a researcher from King’s College London who ran a focus group on personalisation with CoolTan participants, he suggested that the complexity of the application process – and the problem of professionals still not knowing enough themselves – has meant that service-users are trying to be their own social workers, navigate the system and ultimately lose services. As one participant said in a podcast on the subject: “God knows what it really does mean! With all bureaucratic words you sometimes feel that something is getting a bit worse or more complicated.”

The women’s poetry group at CoolTan was partly funded by the Big Lottery’s Reaching Communities fund as a provision for those missing out on personal budgets. That has now ended and the group is now open to men and women who pay for their participation from their personal budget or other sources. Unfortunately several women who attended our workshops last year are not in receipt of this funding – some because their mental health is not considered severe enough – and are not in a financial position to attend, despite the benefits to their health and wellbeing.

Staying abreast of changes in policy and provision is fundamental to preparing for any arts work in the margins, in order to both respond to the needs of participants and map out where the furrows are in the ever-changing terrain – holes and gullies through which the vulnerable can fall, depending on where they sit in the hierarchy of need, or indeed which borough they live in. We know that the arts can make a difference to the lives of those who engage with them. After her first workshop, one poet said: “When I started the class today I couldn't even read the poem. And now, in two hours, I've not only read and understood all of them, but I've also written my own − and it's going to be published! I finally feel like the grey fog in my brain has started to lift for the first time in two years.” Her care support had not been ‘personalised’ by policy, and without alternative funding, she might still be in the fog.


Kate Massey-Clark is a freelance Applied Theatre practitioner.

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