Choice Based Lettings Pilots

Ann Martin of HACAS Chapman Hendy scrutinises the pilot scheme before it clicks into action.

The revolution in Lettings systems is upon us. Decades of carefully crafted points systems to measure need and all the infra-structure around them are being swept away by a tide of choice - or so it seems.

Following the Green Paper and the government's invitation to bid for Choice based lettings pilots, the announcement of the winning authorities has no doubt started a flurry of activity among the 27 and their partner organisations. These include other authorities, LSVTs, RSLs, some private housing companies and at least two or three of the major IT housing suppliers. There will be a flurry of activity within the suppliers' organisations too. One housing officer told me the announcement was hardly public before the letter hit their desk from one supplier.

Lots has already been written regarding the Dutch model and its suitability for all. What good PR by Newham, who include the City of Hague in their partners, and First software who have purchased software used there. But before rushing to spend the £3.5m put up by the government for information technology the issues for IT procurement are as ever:-

So what are the proposals for how people are to express choice? Not surprisingly the most common access method in the bids is via the internet and web sites, and then via kiosks. Other common themes are for newspapers, bulletins and mailshots and access via one-stop shops, property shops and the like. Some mention the role of Estate Offices and freephone service, and of course cable and digital TV are mentioned along with video-conferencing.

Project manager jobs are starting to appear in the press as authorities scramble to move forward at the pace set by DETR. Some organisations, like Harborough and Bolton may already be well down the track. Some of the consortiums have new policies in place and agreement in moving from a points based scheme to something closer resembling the Delft model. Some will already be close to their RSL partners having operated a common register or waiting list. However, issues of confidentiality, differing policies and procedures and housing management strategies seemed to be some of the reasons common allocations policies often fell apart between RSLs and LAs when they were debated in the 90s - can they be more productive this time. Some groups will still need to go through the process of starting to working together and build up trust and common language.

Herefordshire Council's bid is interesting as an example of rural issues in a large geographical region with scattered market towns with high population and distant rural outposts. Whilst owner occupation is high with prices rising dramatically (21% in the last year), the county has the lowest average gross earnings in the West Midlands. The bid is in partnership with Marches HA and the Partnership Housing Group.

They are looking to set up a common integrated housing register and review the lettings policies. They will create a 'estate agent' style lettings agency, jointly owned and managed with a brand image that avoids the stigma of the social housing 'tag'. In terms of IT they see a 'virtual lettings agency' through internet links to rural Post Offices.

The Marches Housing Director, Chris Boote, points out that 'rural communities don't have easy access to the infrastructure that makes delivery of technology easier - there's no cable in these rural communities. The Post Office is often the social centre.' He also sees IT a long way down the list of critical issues. 'If we don't understand and recognise the underpinning policy drivers for each organisation and be prepared to get to an understanding of where we have consensus and where we differ it won't work.' They are looking to have workshops so that they can 'share the vision' between all the stakeholders. Before looking at the business processes and then the IT solutions, they recognise the need for mutual understanding and objectives.

How will this affect some of the national RSLs like The Guinness Trust? Their Housing Policy Manager, Frances Kneller, told me that they think it will work out that they are involved in 25 authorities which are pilots or partner authorities. The different models and approaches that these then take will create different and complex expectations for the Trust and impact on their policy.

There are other rural authorities such as Bath and North East Somerset where there is again high expectations and high demand and a big variance in demographic mix within the area. David Trethewey, Strategic Housing Manager talked about how their pilot (which will involve the 14 registered landlords plus the transfer organisation) follows a lot of research on needs assessment and accessibility and how this is part of a wider strategy about service provision. Kennet will be providing 100 households the ability to log onto the council website via inter-active TV.

There are a number of different issues in the city bids. Sunderland will be busy having just transferred. They are looking to respond to customers within 48 hours of their expressing their choice. Bradford's bid is strong in assisted access to under-represented groups and follows research by Anne Power on Improving Asian Access.

London is virtually covered by a number of bids, although many of the pilots do not cover whole boroughs or all types of stock. Camden has four partner councils, Ealing has four partner authorities, Newham with three LAs, Croydon, Hammersmith plus four and Haringey, Lewisham. To make all this work one would imagine a substantial proportion of the monies for IT must be earmarked for these schemes. Many of the boroughs have difficulty with managing their existing systems to maximise their investment. There will be some hard issues here as the pilots develop. Most of the bids include RSLs and other partners.

Hammersmith is looking to boost the overall volume of lettings. This will be achieved by mimicking the operation of the private housing market in that the pool of potential 'move-on' properties is to be widened from those already vacant to occupied by another aspiring mover. Tenants seeking moves will be encouraged to register their properties on a website and to search the site for details of registered properties meeting their own requirements.

This creation of chaining has always been a requirement from housing organisations in software but always difficult to deliver. Using the tenant's proactive involvement will be an interesting pilot with a different slant.

Like any IT procurement exercise getting the technology right needs to follow detailed understanding of the issues. It seems clear from all the articles and discussion about the suitability of the Dutch model here that there will be no one solution.

DETR are in the process of tendering work to monitor and evaluate the pilots, and to carry out market research on users views and outcomes. Let's hope both the process of procurement and the outcomes of IT provision will be a part of that evaluation.

The Winners

Bath and North East Somerset BC LSVT
Blackburn with Darwen BC LSVT
Bolton MBC
Bradford MDC
Brighton and Hove BC
Camden LBC
Coventry MBC LSVT
Croydon LBC
Derby CC
Ealing LBC
Eastbourne BC
Hammersmith & Fulham LBC
Harborough DC
Haringey LBC
Herefordshire Council
Kennet DC
Lewisham LBC
Manchester CC
Mansfield DC
Medway Council LSVT
New Forest DC
Newham LBC
Restormel BC LSVT
Sandwell MDC
Sheffield MBC
Stockport MBC
Sunderland LSVT

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