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.
Metropolitan districts only
The last time we tested this task was in March 2016, when we tested London Boroughs with an identical question set*. This showed just over half (55%) providing a good or very good service for people trying to find out how to apply for social housing. Metropolitan districts, the group tested this time, do less well, with 39% providing a good or very good service on their websites. The report below looks at the results in more detail and suggests why this might be so.
* although the service-based questions are the same, we have changed some of the questions common to all surveys: we no longer have a question about task promotion and we have added a question about consistency of destination when site visitors start from either navigation or search or A-Z.
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 2017-18 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
Metropolitan districts are not as a group handling this as well as well as the London councils reviewed a few months ago and it may be instructive to look at where the main differences are.
The largest discrepancy is with the question Do the housing web pages set expectations about the likelihood of being successful in getting housing from the council rather than consigning the key information to a pdf?
63% of London councils scored a ‘Yes’ answer to this question compared with fewer than 20% of metropolitan districts. It would be hard not to assume that, bad as the housing crisis is everywhere, it is its severity in London that has prompted housing managers to highlight this information on their pages, and that a similar urgency is not felt in most metropolitan districts.
London councils also do significantly better (by 20 percentage points on each) on the questions:
Is there a clear explanation about who is eligible to apply for housing from the council? Key information must be on the housing web pages and not consigned to a pdf
Is key information about how the council prioritises applicants through a points or banding system provided on the housing pages and not consigned only to a pdf?
Again, the reason is surely to do with the need to try to manage demand on housing advisors’ time by setting the expectations of potential service users.
The one area where metropolitan districts do better than London councils is in the absence of out of date information on their websites, a cardinal error that we mark down severely at Better Connected - sites where out of date content is found cannot score higher than 2 stars for the task.
In general, our reviewer says that what we reported for London councils in last year's Better Connected applies across the board for metropolitan districts, only more so – with the notable exceptions of our recommended, four star sites and in particular, Dudley and Kirklees councils.
The best sites here, as in London, were the ones that insist that those seeking to join the housing register go through a pre-qualification assessment. 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 process that takes twelve weeks, as it clearly does with some councils. 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.
The largest common denominator this time around, though, was the incidence of council websites that appear to have completely abdicated any sense of ownership of ‘applying for housing’ by the council itself.
These sites often proudly announced that all council properties were transferred to organisation X at suchandsuch a date and referred interested parties to that organisation’s website without providing any information at all about what part the council plays in administering ongoing applications. In contrast, details about the transfer (including the precise date), however, were sometimes mentioned several times.
A number of councils dumped visitors unceremoniously onto the third party website without saying why they being taken there. Wirral’s a good case in point. The page here https://www.wirral.gov.uk/housing/help-finding-home makes no mention of applying for council or social housing. Old hands may know that housing associations are providers of social housing and may manage former council houses, but people new to seeking low cost housing may not know this.
One council stating that they have no housing of their own to rent, and advising site visitors to read a booklet entitled ‘Access to Housing’ then failed to provide a download or link.
Furthermore it was not uncommon to be told that housing applications were dealt with by Organisation A and then be informed by that website that a third organisation, Organisation B was needed with a further referral to their website. Newcastle is a case in point as can be seen by following the trail from https://www.newcastle.gov.uk/housing/council-housing-and-affordable-homes. Why aren't visitors referred to the correct destination in the first place, removing steps where visitors might get lost?
In terms of jargon, on the whole these housing pages were refreshingly jargon-free, but the names given to some of the housing schemes and initiatives were bizarre and uninformative, especially when no explanation was given that XYZ homes was the council’s housing provider.
In a similar vein, wording of links from the council website was often decidedly vague. Stockport is a good example of this, but is by no means the only one. It is not obvious which link needs to be clicked to find out how to apply for housing from this page http://www.stockport.gov.uk/services/housing/affordablehousing/
Better Connected makes no apology for marking down sites for failing to put key information on their web pages and consigning this to pdfs. High level information about process, eligibility and timing MUST be set out simply and on web pages. This should be the case for all council services, but is particularly important for services used by people in potentially difficult and stressful situations.
People seeking social housing 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.
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.
Very good overall, although I had to hunt around for several answers (the customer journey felt a little disjointed in places). Good descriptions and I particularly rated the prioritisation banding explanation
Excellent all-rounder, and I particularly favour the pre-application assessment which would save potentially unsuccessful housing applicants an awful lot of hassle. Perhaps the housing pages are little verbose but all the key information is there such that at this point in my application all my questions can be reasonably well satisfied. I shouldn't need to contact the council yet!
Excellent banding explanation: http://www.dudley.gov.uk/resident/housing/finding-a-home/council-homes/applying-for-a-council-home/the-bandings-scheme-in-dudley. Also Super-comprehensive list of housing alternatives! http://www.dudley.gov.uk/resident/housing/finding-a-home/
Proof that applying for social housing needn't be overbearing, complex or cumbersome. What a fabulous page about how to join the housing register! Well done Kirklees!