John Little

You may have been one of the many viewers who, like me, watched the Channel 4 series last year, ‘How to Get a Council House’. I watched it because I have an interest in social housing. When it was on air, I received texts from colleagues saying how awful it made social housing look. I replied that it made dismal viewing on so many levels.

It portrayed scenes of desperate people seeking help, bidding again and again for properties, sometimes over many years. We watched people being treated like numbers in a lottery by an uncaring system: shocking to anyone with an ounce of compassion. It seemed that the council employees were as much victims of Choice Based Lettings (CBL) as the housing applicants.

For those who don’t know (lucky you), CBL is a costly and ineffective means of bidding for a social dwelling owned by a housing association or a local authority. It involves applicants having access to an IT system to make a bid. It costs local authorities and housing associations exorbitant amounts of money to maintain service and respond to these IT systems. Many applicants find the bidding process complicated and the computer application unfathomable.

One housing organisation I know spends £1.8 million a year just to service the fallout from the CBL computer system. The fallout includes the time spent by housing officers answering calls to explain why bidders have not been successful and accompanying groups of applicants to viewings, many of whom turn the property down when they see its physical condition.

During the last decade social housing landlords were bullied by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to adopt CBL schemes as ‘best practice’. It’s the corruption of a successful Dutch idea that was put forward by ‘bright young things’ in Whitehall to give their minister the word ‘choice’ to sell. Choice was, and is, the Whitehall fad du jour.

As the TV series showed, the senior leadership of housing organisations had little idea of the negative financial and operational impact of acquiescing to DCLG’s bullying and adopting this scandalously wasteful approach. Some do now – sadly, too late.

Senior leaders facing draconian funding cuts realise their organisations can no longer afford these awful schemes. Discussions are under way in many housing organisations to quietly drop them. DCLG knows CBL is a failure.

The real tragedy is that applicants for social housing – ordinary decent people – are treated as an inconvenience because there are too many bidders for too few properties. ’They have no real choice; they choose what we give them,’ to quote one of the senior officers interviewed by Channel 4.

The delusion applicants are fed is that they have a chance of getting a property when, because of their circumstances, many have no hope of being housed in the social housing sector. It is not unusual for there to be 12,000 people on a housing waiting list which will accommodate around 500 families a year. How unfair is that? The housing supply is simply not there.

Shame on you, DCLG.

Senior leaders in social housing organisations cannot shrug off responsibility. The ‘Nuremberg defence’– saying they didn’t understand the impacts, or if they did, lacked the moral courage to tell the emperor he had no clothes – won’t wash. One senior housing manager told me, ‘It would have been bad for one’s career to have done so’.

Still: no senior person in DCLG or housing association will be looking to apply to live in social housing. So why should they worry?

John Little

Read similar articles in Edition Two of The Vanguard Periodical: The Vanguard Method in People Centred Services. Ask for your FREE hard copy or PDF.