I want that one, by Neil Merrick

11 Jan 07
'Choice-based letting' allows social housing applicants to choose where they want to live, rather than have officials decide for them. And soon it will be available in every English council. Neil Merrick looks at what the scheme means for tenants and housing providers

12 January 2007

'Choice-based letting' allows social housing applicants to choose where they want to live, rather than have officials decide for them. And soon it will be available in every English council. Neil Merrick looks at what the scheme means for tenants and housing providers

Three months ago, Peter Cole was living in a small hotel in west London after splitting up with his wife and being declared homeless. When he put his name on the London Borough of Hillingdon's housing waiting list at the beginning of October, he expected to wait a while before the council found him somewhere suitable to live. But by the end of the month, he had left bed and breakfast accommodation and moved into a one-bedroom flat, his first choice out of the homes available.

As a man in his mid-60s with poor health, Cole was always likely to be allocated a home sooner rather than later. But he is especially pleased that the council's choice-based lettings system enabled him to get the flat he wanted in record time.

The concept of CBL originated in the Netherlands in the late 1980s and was piloted in the UK in 2002. By the end of the decade, all English local authorities must introduce it for their tenants and those of local housing associations. The government recently announced that 49 new councils are developing it, taking the total to more than 200.

Outside England, councils are not yet being forced down this route, although Glasgow Housing Association, the UK's largest social landlord, is set to introduce it later this year.

Hillingdon was one of the first councils to pilot the scheme in April 2002. After phasing it in over nine months, it extended it to all properties the following January. Every two weeks, tenants and people seeking social housing can pick up a free newspaper listing the properties available in Hillingdon and neighbouring boroughs. They then bid for up to three homes using the internet, telephone, text or post.

Peter Cole was given a copy of Locata Home during his visit to the council's offices in Uxbridge. He submitted his bids by post in order of priority and confirmed them by telephone. 'I'm very happy,' he says. 'It's a beautiful flat with a large living room and the warden checks on me each morning.'

Not everybody, of course, is so lucky. With almost 10,000 people on the council's waiting list, those in band D (the lowest priority) are far less likely to get the homes they want, and might not be offered a property at all.

Last year, 1,176 homes were let in the borough using CBL – up from 804 the previous year. But Dianne Carter, Hillingdon's housing assessment manager, says applicants must still be realistic. 'If people are waiting a long time, they may change their bidding trends because they realise they're not getting anywhere,' she adds.

The advantage is that people are told why they were unsuccessful. 'We always give feedback on their bids,' says Carter. 'We encourage people to phone or use the internet to discover why they've missed out.'

Twenty-eight housing associations with homes in Hillingdon participate in the Locata scheme, which also covers five other London boroughs and councils from outside the capital, including Brighton and Southampton. About 10% of homes are offered to people from outside each local authority's boundary.

Under CBL, people seem happier where they live and are less likely to ask to move. Since 2003, the number of Hillingdon tenants seeking a change within 12 months of moving into a home has fallen from 8% to 4%.

'It saves us money,' says Ann Moses, head of housing management at Hillingdon Homes, the arm's-length management organisation running Hillingdon's stock. 'Our aim is to keep tenants in their homes.'

A survey carried out by the council in 2005 found 83% of people thought the bidding process was easy and 65% understood the short-listing process. But almost half (42%) were ultimately dissatisfied – possibly because they did not get the homes they wanted. 'People missed out under the old system as well,' says Moses.

Two years ago, the council recognised that some people have difficulty using CBL and set up a customer services team to help such applicants make their bids.

One of these is Simon Bourke. The council placed his bids for him after he studied the homes available. 'Everybody was so helpful,' he says. 'It seemed complicated to me but I believe other people find it much easier.'

Bourke, a retired builder, had been forced to move out of a private flat that he had rented since 1966 after his landlord died. He wanted to remain in the same part of Hayes and within weeks was offered a flat three minutes' walk from his former home. 'I wanted to live close by because of my friends,' he says.

When Locata was launched in 2002, it consisted of five London boroughs and three registered social landlords. It received a £1.1m grant from the government to cover software and other start-up costs. With the scheme up and running, councils pay an annual membership fee of £50,000 and share the cost of producing the fortnightly newspaper in up to 17 languages.

Peter Riley, director of Locata, says some local authorities and RSLs were initially keener on CBL than others. 'Choice takes away a bit of control,' he explains. 'Once people understand it, they tend to become a bit evangelical.'

Interest is growing and, in addition to signing up a further seven RSLs in London, Locata has expanded to include councils in Derbyshire, Essex and West Berkshire. 'There are a lot of councils wanting to get on board,' adds Riley.

A recent independent study of CBL by Heriot Watt University and the British Market Research Bureau concluded that councils outside London with a lot of empty properties save large sums because tenants move around less frequently.

Sheffield City Council saved about £1m in one year, according to the study. Professor Hal Pawson, a senior research fellow at Heriot Watt, says any savings will depend on local demand for housing, but start-up costs are not as high as some landlords think, with some off-the-shelf products available.

The study, commissioned by the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, also concluded that CBL can help create a wider ethnic mix in communities. 'There is sometimes a tendency among staff to play safe and not offer a black household a home in an area that is perceived to be 100% white,' says Pawson. 'They don't want to make offers that they think people will refuse because it slows down the lettings process.'

Shiraz Bhaiji, development director at East London Lettings Company, set up by the London Borough of Newham four years ago, says there will always be a tendency for groups of people to live in certain areas. But he confirms that, in some cases, tenants are choosing to move elsewhere.

Since the company took over lettings for the authority and local RSLs, there has been a fall in tenants' complaints. 'It's a more transparent service,' says Bhaiji. 'Previously it was officer-led and people felt that favours were being done. Now the client is in the driving seat.'

The ODPM's successor, the Department for Communities and Local Government, announced in December that it is paying £760,000 towards Capital Moves, a new pan-London lettings service that, in theory, will give people more opportunity to choose a home in other parts of the capital. Backed by the Greater London Authority, London Councils and the London Housing Federation, it should be up and running within two years.

Twenty-eight of London's 33 boroughs already offer CBL or are setting up schemes. For Capital Moves, they will be expected to make at least 5% of their homes available to people from other boroughs.

Larger schemes should prove more attractive to housing associations, which tend to own homes in more than one local authority. Beatrice Cingtho, Hillingdon's acting assistant director of housing, says Locata shows that councils can co-operate over lettings and make savings through economies of scale.

But Capital Moves presents a much greater challenge to councils and RSLs. 'The scale is so large,' she says.

Regardless of what happens in London, there is no doubt that CBL is here to stay and, says Pawson, is helping councils to shake off their paternalistic image. 'It has introduced a market-led approach that people are familiar with for other goods and services they receive,' he says.

'It means that housing doesn't stand out so much as a welfare service.'


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