The huge excess of demand over supply for social housing means that councils need to consider carefully how they present this issue on their websites. Applicants’ expectations need to be set appropriately, so that those with little chance of being successful do not waste their time and council resources on enquiries and applications. At the same time, information needs to be easy to understand and instructions simple to follow for people who may be vulnerable or at least under considerable stress when trying to resolve their housing needs.
33 London councils
We decided to test London Boroughs only for this task, knowing that pressure on social housing is uniquely high in this city. Our research indicates that just over half (55%) provide a good or very good service for people trying to find out how to apply for social housing.
Check ‘coverage’ to see if your council has been surveyed. Go to councils page and select your council. Look for link to task report under 2016-17 results
Provide a good or very good online service based on this survey
Better connected rankings
*Discrepancies in the figures are due to rounding off
In 2013 Better Connected tested this task with all councils that have housing responsibilities, but with a much easier set of questions. For example, we did not ask questions 3-9 in the question set above at all, and in those days Better Connected testing did not include the extra challenges of the ‘essential question’ (our question 2) or the requirement for all information encountered to be up-to-date. Getting the wrong side of either of these questions means councils cannot score more than two stars for the task.
Taking this into account, it is not surprising that only 55% of our sample got three or four stars for this task, compared with the 82% of London Boroughs that achieved the equivalent of a ‘pass’ in 2013.
We were quite surprised that one third of councils did not allow online application, and that the same proportion miss the opportunity to set expectations about the likelihood of getting social housing at all up front. Two thirds did not make clear what would happen to applications and within what timescale. We accept that housing departments are under huge pressure, but surely setting expectations reduces avoidable contact from people chasing things up?
We make no apology for marking down sites for having key information in pdfs. Where people are seeking social housing, they may well be in temporary accommodation where a mobile device or a public access computer is their main means of accessing information, and in both cases, pdfs can be problematic. We do not expect all information to be on web pages, and acknowledge that with housing, there is a lot of information about details of eligibility and how to apply. But key information needs to be explicit on web pages. Look at our recommended sites for examples.
Telling people what information they need before starting an important application form seems obvious. Even where forms can be saved and returned to, it is inconvenient to have to do something in two or more sittings. This is especially true of housing seekers that need to use public or borrowed facilities rather than completing applications from their own devices.
The wide variation in practice across the 33 London councils was striking.
The best made the process of applying for housing simple, with a very basic application form to get registered and eligibility checked, whereupon the council would then inform the applicant whether they qualified and what their priority for housing would be. At the opposite end of the scale were those that insisted applicant go through a full application, completing a long and complex form to be submitted for determination.
Where councils did publish timescales for hearing back about a submitted application, these varied enormously. One council promises applicants that they will hear back within 48 hours of submitting an application, while others stated that they currently had a 12-week backlog.
Several councils still rely on the applicant downloading a PDF and completing it by hand without the possibility of completing it electronically on one’s own computer.
Eligibility for housing was promoted, and checked, in a number of ways. Some councils insist on applicants completing an online assessment for eligibility BEFORE providing making the application.
Every council website made a big play of demand outstripping supply and some were quite good at setting expectations as to the likely outcome of an application. It does seem sensible to deter people from going through the rigmarole of a full blown application if, in all likelihood, they are going to be turned down at the end of the process – especially if this is a 12 week process. All this time spent waiting for a response could then be put to more practical use in an alternative direction. Such an approach would surely have a positive impact on reducing waiting times for those applications that are eligible.
A number of councils provided information about Housing Moves, an initiative from the Mayor of London, that allows people to apply to other London boroughs, and not just the one where they reside. Worryingly, the information provided was not always consistent from one council to another.
One council usefully pointed out that for those prepared to live outside London, there might be better availability and provided directions to other councils’ websites to make an application.
Our reviewer’s stand-out council for this task was Richmond-upon-Thames, described as clear, succinct and well explained throughout.
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Well explained and, in particular, the separate choice based lettings website is competently signposted to explain its relevance, purpose and general availability. I was particularly impressed with the allocations policy which although consigned to PDF provision for the most part there is clearly a tacit recognition by the powers that be that the full policy document is a nightmare for a customer to fathom out and they've usefully provided a summary document of seven pages (cf 44 pages in the full version). For that aspect alone I think the site is worthy of examination as an example of good practice! Deliciously jargon-free!
Well explained, plain English and super-clear page layout. I particularly liked the online eligibility checker rather than making me go through the rigmarole of a full-blown application only to tell me further down the road that I'm ineligible. I'm sure it saves the council from processing applications that are doomed to fail but this measure demonstrates a sensitivity on the part of the council in essentially giving a clear indication up front to a potential applicant as to their likely application success. Impressive.
Covers all the bases well. Expectations carefully set, including eligibility (eg who is not eligible). Good guidance on completing the application form which I'm advised to read before commencing the online form.
Overall, very good. Not too wordy with the explanations and there's lots of relevant 'up front' info provided ahead of the link to complete an online application. If I had a criticism it would be that the allocations policy is relegated to a PDF with little relevant content on the web page.
This review undertaken on a beta website which performs very well, is delightfully concise and free of jargon. I particularly liked the interactive eligibility checker, plus the crystal clear statement at the top of the 'apply for housing' page which states that I am highly unlikely to be allocated housing in Islington. OK a bit blunt, but it's honest and up front, rather than hidden away somewhere obscure. Useful information page about number of eligibility points required to secure a housing offer in 2014/15. I'm not sure how clear it is to a member of the public, but at least it's provided for public benefit. Full of good intentions!
Ticks the boxes on many levels, but more particularly with regard to eligibility and prioritisation of applications. Concise descriptions and really good signposting and general navigation through the process. Quite possibly the best explanation encountered to date on eligibility and prioritisation of applicants. I like it!
Outstandingly good, easily the best I've encountered to date during this review. I particularly liked the very clear indication of eligibility and the information provided about what information I will need to provide on my application