Emily Rogers visits the council that is replacing allocation forms with face-to-face meetings to vet prospective tenants
Great Yarmouth has seen the housing application form diminish in recent years, from a symbol of hope to something more resembling a sign of frustration. Handed out as liberally as street flyers to all who requested one - with no questions asked - they were the hoped-for gateway for thousands, the means to bid for a home of their choosing using a choice-based lettings scheme.
For most of these people, though, the gate never opened. And it’s not hard to see why. Each month, 2,600 bids would flood in for little more than 100 homes advertised in ‘Homeselect’, the town’s CBL scheme.
CBL, was promoted by the previous government as a more transparent, customer-focused way of allocating social housing. Eighty per cent of local authorities chose to adopt the scheme and it was introduced to Great Yarmouth in 2003. After applying, housing hopefuls were banded gold, silver or bronze, depending on their needs. They were then invited to bid for homes advertised every two weeks - and the most needy ‘gold’ bidders got them.
Knowing the popularity of the seaside town, with a population of more than 96,000, the council opted against globally accessible electronic applications. But this didn’t stop it getting swamped. By 2009, Great Yarmouth’s housing waiting list had doubled to 6,500 and was predicted to double again within five years.
Now the council plans to axe its CBL system completely. It is one of the first councils, along with Stoke-on-Trent, to do so, a move some housing experts think shortsighted. And when Inside Housing contacted the Communities and Local Government department to find out where the coalition government stands on CBL, a spokesperson indicated that ministers don’t intend to build on Labour’s ambition to get CBL into every authority. ‘The decision on whether to operate CBL is one for local authorities to take, and thus the department does not envisage setting further targets or promoting uptake of CBL,’ she says.
Great Yarmouth is currently running an adapted CBL system, before scrapping it completely. Before, the Homeselect team ‘was advertising properties, so it was the promotion of social housing which was adding to the flow of applications’, recalls its manager, Bridget Southey. In 2009 there were more than 6,000 on the list and just 600 vacancies. The number has reduced to 5,000 since then, but there would always be a huge number of people who would never be rehoused.
‘What we should have been doing was talking to people and saying: “You haven’t got a hope”. We knew that they didn’t stand a chance, but we weren’t relaying that and from the customer’s point of view, that was pretty poor. No wonder they got upset and irate.’
In September 2009, the beleaguered housing team brought in consultants Vanguard Consulting to review the system. The exercise opened their eyes to the fact that a completed application form often didn’t mean that the applicant needed one of their precious social homes. A startling 46 per cent of them had applied for the scheme without ever bidding for a property.
The team stopped dishing out application forms and started to meet new applicants in person, with just blank sheets of paper and listening ears. ‘We found that some people who approached us had problems they could resolve without us having to move them,’ recalls Ms Southey.
The team has ditched the application form and now deals with all new applications through conversations with applicants. ‘With a form, people are trying to fill in boxes and feel that it’s pre-empting them down a certain route. It tends to be much more natural when you talk to them. You tend to get to the bottom of what their actual problem is,’ she explains.
For some people, the solution to their housing problem turned out to be getting help with their existing home or garden, or adaptations such as stairlifts. Others, who had little prospect of getting the home they wanted in the near future, were asked to consider other options, such as widening their choice of area or taking part in a house exchange. Or they were offered help to find a private rented home.
Into the pool
Today, the few who have a reasonable prospect of getting a social home are placed into a ‘housing pool’, which involves staff matching properties to their needs. From those who have applied under the new system, just 125 households fall into this category.
Ms Southey’s team is throwing its efforts into housing them and dealing with around 100 gold-banded cases left on the housing register from the previous system before it moves to axe the CBL system completely later this year. By doing so, it expects to save £15,000 a year in advertising costs, plus a one-off saving of £30,000, cutting IT, printing, postage, stationary and ‘central corporate’ costs.
It now takes an average 147 days to house those in highest need, compared with up to two-and-a-half years under the CBL system. But with around 5,000 households still sitting on the housing register, there is still much work to do.
Around two thirds of these households are the lowest priority, bronze-banded applicants, including 1,120 with no connection to the town, 1,700 who appear to be adequately housed and 250 owner-occupiers with capital in their homes. The rest are largely silver-banded applicants, for whom overcrowding is a major issue.
‘Initially, we thought we could just cancel the people in the lowest band,’ says Ms Southey. ‘But we can’t just take them all off the register and say they don’t exist any more. There are a lot of people in bronze, but when we talk to them, their situations can be quite dire. So we’ll have to be cautious [in removing people from the register]. In an ideal world, we’d want to ring every one of these 5,000. But logistically, hand on heart, I can’t see that happening.’
Ms Southey says her team will prioritise the silver-banded households on the list for housing options interviews. Of those in bronze, those with no local connection will be struck off the list. The forms for the rest of them will be scrutinised again for signs of problems which need to be resolved through face-to-face contact with staff.
She says it is too early to predict how many will be scrubbed from the register. But she is hopeful that the list will be pruned down to a figure not much higher than the 600 housing vacancies the council has out of the town’s 7,500 homes.
Ms Southey says her team’s metamorphosis from paper pushers into straight-talking caseworkers has largely gone down well with applicants. ‘People have been saying: “thank you for listening to me, thank you for letting me see somebody”.’
Choice-based lettings: the debate
John Statham, head of housing partnerships at Leeds Council, who oversees the city’s choice-based lettings scheme, questions why CBL is being blamed for expanding waiting lists.
‘Authorities can make decisions about who comes on to their waiting list and who doesn’t go on,’ he says. ‘Priority [for housing] is determined not through the CBL process, but by the letting policy of the council. CBL is just a means for people advertising and expressing an interest.
‘People may say CBL is a waste of time, because they can’t get what they want. But the basic problem for council housing is that there’s not enough of it. Until that is resolved, everything else is just playing around the edges.
‘The customer feedback on our CBL system is very positive. We now have a really good housing options service, which sits down and talks with customers to find different solutions.’
Choice-based lettings expert Dr Tim Brown, director of the Centre for Comparative Housing Research at De Montfort University, acknowledges that one of the consequences of CBL is ‘often that the size of the housing register increases dramatically’.
He adds that the success of such schemes depends on offering them alongside a comprehensive housing advice service. ‘It shouldn’t be one or the other,’ he warns.
‘If housing advice isn’t integrated with CBL, you get a lot of bidding from people who, frankly, haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance.’
Dr Brown said the government’s localism agenda provided potential new freedoms for councils in how they manage housing allocations.
Nigel Long, head of policy at TPAS, says most tenants would be disappointed to hear that choice-based lettings were being scrapped.
‘For a long time there has been a problem letting some types of properties, for example homes in areas with a bad reputation. CBL has led to these properties being filled. They’re often let to people who may have lower level of housing need, and who are working, but have made the positive choice to bid. Their presence can be beneficial to an area,’ he says.
‘The previous government took the view that social housing should be opened up to a wider range of people. The big problem, of course, is housing supply. I think Great Yarmouth Council is missing the point - what’s wrong with having lots of people applying for properties? That’s choice. CBL can also lead to higher churn of tenants, but tenants should have the choice to move somewhere better for their families.’
Need to Know: allocations
- 260 of England’s 326 local authorities participated in choice-based lettings schemes in April last year, according to the Communities and Local Government department
- 1.75 million households were included on local authority waiting lists in April last year
- This means that on average there are 5,368 households waiting to be housed in each local authority area
- English local authorities spent £663 million in 2009/10 on temporary housing for the homeless, according to data gathered by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy