Pilots Cleared for Take-off

by Hal Pawson, School of Planning & Housing, ECA/Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, the independent consultant who analysed the bids for DETR.

Frenetic activity will now be well under way in the 43 local authorities setting up the DETR's 27 choice-based lettings pilots. These are the winners in the share-out of £13 million announced by Nick Raynsford last month. They include five consortia schemes involving 21 authorities - mainly in London - but also including Restormel (and partners) in Cornwall. In some cases, joint schemes aim to eliminate administrative boundaries impeding applicants' mobility. In others, cost sharing (particularly in terms of IT) seems to be a more important driver.

The majority of pilots also include RSLs as active partners. Six schemes (Bath, Blackburn, Coventry, Kennet, Restormel and Sunderland) involve stock transfer local authorities, and so are targetted wholly on RSL vacancies. Others - primarily in London - envisage involving RSLs to the extent that association vacancies are made available for council nominees.

A third variant (e.g. Bolton, Herefordshire) is where partner RSLs will participate as full partners in the pilot scheme, applying the new arrangements to their vacancies across the board.

A third set of partners involved in many bids are the software companies. Two companies, in particular, are parties to a number of pilots and this could result in some standardisation of approaches across the programme as a whole.

Advertising vacancies

Although the open advertising of vacancies was not an obligatory requirement of the DETR's bidding guidance, this is at the core of virtually every pilot scheme. As such, 26 of the 27 projects plan to scrap the bureaucratic process of matching applicants and voids and replace it with a system where applicants select directly from available vacancies. The exception here is the Brighton pilot which focuses on 'better informing the consumer' - largely through the creative harnessing of ICT. The scheme aims to promote private sector alternatives to social housing, as well as marketing council housing in lower demand areas of the country.

Brighton is, however far from alone in envisaging the innovative use of electronic media as a key element of its scheme. All or virtually all pilots anticipate developing dedicated websites as a medium through which to advertise vacancies. More sophisticated models will include the facility for applicants to register and bid for vacancies online. At the same time, however, most authorities recognise that if web-based systems are to realise their potential, promotion of wider access to the internet is essential. One common response is the idea of internet kiosks set up across an authority, located in public buildings and/or public places. Some authorities envisage negotiating with supermarkets on this.

The need to facilitate internet access for applicants is recognised as a particular problem by some of the more rural pilots. Herefordshire plans to develop a network of access points in remote post offices. Kennet will be providing 100 households with electronic equipment as part of an experiment to log into the Council's website via inter-active TV.

However, whilst there are ambitious ideas for web-based systems, most of the successful bidders are also well aware of the limits of such approaches, both in terms of access to internet-linked terminals, and in terms of the familiarity of such technology for social housing customers. Commonly, the strategy for disseminating vacancy details includes both periodic freesheets and estate agent-style bulletin boards displayed in housing offices and elsewhere.

A number of schemes (especially involving midlands and northern authorities facing low or declining demand) envisage a key role for shop-front estate agency style offices as part of a 're-branding' of social housing. In these cases (e.g. Mansfield, Sandwell), the purchase and/or refurbishment of suitable premises accounts for a significant share of the overall project budget.

Going live

The expectation is that schemes will 'go live' later in 2001, though some pilots will become fully operational only towards the end of 2001/02. How much of a challenge these target dates represent will vary from scheme to scheme. It will vary according to the scope of the scheme envisaged and according to the housing market context in which the scheme is being set up.

A number of the pilot authorities are at something of an advantage because they are able to build on existing experience rather than starting from scratch. Ten of the 27 successful schemes can be classed as a 'development of an existing approach' rather than a wholly new departure. In Bradford, Manchester and Mansfield, for example, schemes will build on current practice where low demand vacancies are openly advertised. Similarly, the trail-blazing authority-wide scheme already developed by Harborough will be enhanced by more sophisticated ICT systems. Other pilots which envisage switching to a choice-based approach along the lines of the 'Dutch model' for all or virtually all social housing vacancies include Eastbourne, Medway, New Forest, Newham (and its three LA partners) and Stockport.

Authorities such as Bath and Bolton, should find that close working relationships with RSLs developed in part through sophisticated common housing registers will prove a sound foundation for collaboration in opening up applicant choice. Indeed, a number of authorities (e.g. Coventry, Herefordshire, Manchester) expect to develop or greatly enhance CHRs as part and parcel of their plans.

Targeted schemes

The majority of pilots, however, involve authorities with little or no previous experience of choice-based approaches. For these councils, the proposed arrangements will represent something of a step in the dark. So it is probably not surprising that many envisage testing out 'choice based' mechanisms on a limited scale rather than a wholesale switch of approach in the first instance. Thus, schemes such as those being set up in authorities such as Camden (and its four partner councils), Coventry, Derby and Sheffield envisage using defined localities as a test-bed for developing techniques which can later be applied more widely. Whilst Coventry's scheme focuses on a low demand neighbourhood, the others are deliberately targeted on more mixed areas.

Another 'suck it and see' variant is the group of schemes which envisage testing out new approaches on a specific property type before extending the coverage more broadly. Ealing (and its three partner authorities) and Lewisham, for example, anticipate an initial focus on smaller properties.

A different kind of a 'focused strategy' is the approach of Bath, Croydon and Haringey. These authorities envisage targeting attention on 'high priority applicants'. The ability to select directly from available vacancies is to be restricted to those whose priority exceeds a given threshold, rather than advertising vacancies more broadly. This approach, developed by three councils operating in what are certainly high demand areas, could help to limit the potential cost of dealing with large numbers of 'unrealistic' applications by 'low priority' applicants.

The Hammersmith scheme (also involving four other London boroughs and five RSLs) is a targeted pilot of a quite another sort. The focus here is on existing tenants rather than new applicants. Its main aim is to boost the overall volume of lettings - not just to overhaul the process through which vacancies are let. This will be achieved through mimicking the operation of the private housing market in that the pool of potential 'move on' properties is to be widened from properties already vacant to those occupied by other aspiring movers. Tenants seeking moves will be encouraged to register their property details on a website and to search the site for details of registered properties meeting their own requirements. Through this pro-active involvement, tenants themselves will be able to assemble a chain of aspiring movers, with the landlord at the end of the chain eventually contributing a true void vacancy, thus triggering a succession of moves through a domino effect.

Applicant prioritisation

Simplification of applicant prioritisation systems is a common theme across the pilots. Beyond this, however, proposed approaches differ considerably. At one end of the spectrum are authorities which envisage retaining a strongly needs-based framework (e.g. Camden, Haringey). At the other extreme are authorities such as Newham and Sunderland who are more strongly influenced by the 'Dutch model'. These authorities place a strong emphasis on 'transparency', with rehousing priority decided largely according to waiting time (or, sometimes, length of tenancy) and where housing need plays only a minor role. In some models, housing need will contribute to applicants' priority only for a relatively small proportion of applicants urgently requiring a move. They will be handled in one of two ways:

Between the two extremes described above, the majority of pilots plan to set up systems of the kind envisaged in the Housing Green Paper, involving a limited number of 'groups' reflecting the urgency of an applicant's need for rehousing, with prioritisation of applicants within these groups being determined by waiting time.

For a smaller number of pilot schemes the prioritisation system to be used remains to be confirmed. In some cases this reflects a rather exclusive bid focus on the technical processes by which vacancies are to be promoted and housing applications submitted. In other instances (e.g. Herefordshire, Sheffield), it is envisaged that current systems will be retained only pending the outcome of necessarily broad-based consultations on how they should be replaced.

Involving the private sector and promoting inter-regional mobility

Although a new approach to letting social sector vacancies lies at the core of most pilot schemes, a number plan to integrate a private sector element within their scheme. In some cases (e.g. Brighton, Croydon, Eastbourne, Medway) this may involve advertising private tenancies alongside council and RSL vacancies. Another strong theme of some schemes (e.g. Camden, Ealing, Haringey) is the promotion of social sector vacancies in lower demand areas. This is justified in terms of providing a wider range of choices to applicants and, for some applicants, a potential tradeoff between immediate rehousing in another area on the one hand, and a long wait for local accommodation, on the other. Most of these arrangements will be facilitated by bi-lateral relationships between authorities in London and the midlands or the north (e.g. Camden/Kirklees, Haringey/Stoke-on-Trent). An exception is the partnering of Ealing (and its three partner authorities) with two large housing associations based outside of London.

Just as there is no definitive 'Delft model' blueprint, it is clear that the 27 pilot schemes encompass a fairly wide range of approaches and objectives. This should help to ensure that, collectively, they will provide a rich source of experience for the benefit of social housing as a whole.

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