In this analysis of our social housing series, we turn to Ireland, which has been trialling innovative new ways of managing its relationship with social housing tenants.

Ireland has led the way on several demand-focussed digital interventions, designed to bring innovation to the way social housing providers meet their customers’ needs and deliver better experiences and outcomes.

We analysed two interesting features of the Irish social housing model the Choice-based letting programme that the government is rolling out across the country and the “Housing Passport” system, for empowering tenant mobility.

Irish problems, UK lessons

The Irish and UK social housing market share the following key similarities, which increases its relevance.

  • Proximity: both countries are close neighbours.
  • Market dynamics: both countries share a mix of housing associations and local authority providers.
  • Density range: both markets cover rural communities through to city populations.
  • Funding: both markets are central government funded, provided at a local level.

The residential property crash following the 2008 global financial crisis has helped keep housing affordability relatively favourable. Low-income rental housing stress is lower in Ireland than most OECD countries, including the UK1:

However, Ireland does still have a large social housing waitlist, at 71,858 households, or roughly 4.2% of the population2 that qualified for social housing whose needs were not being met (down from 85,799 since 2017)3. Ireland has been working on developing different ways of improving the social housing tenant experience. In doing so, they have relieved some pressure on the social housing market.

Improving the social housing tenant experience

In 2014, the Irish government published its strategy on Social Housing to 20204.  That document outlined the three pillars that the government was pursuing to improve the social housing market across Ireland. The first of these was: Creating Flexible and Responsive Social Housing Supports. The other two were: Provision of New Social Housing and Providing Housing Supports Through the Private Rental Sector.

That pillar includes a range of policy initiatives aimed at improving the social housing experience for the tenants, including two innovative policies that we will explore in this article: Choice Based Letting and the Housing passport.

Choice Based Letting

The Irish government recognises that by coordinating their data, tenants and properties, they could provide a greater degree of involvement and choice (in relation to housing type, location or provider) for those in need of social housing.

Looking to scale a ground-breaking pilot from the South Dublin County Council, the Irish government has indicated that it will pursue a Choice-Based-Letting (CBL) Scheme. Under the scheme, providers of social housing advertise their available properties through an online portal, along with the details of what kind of tenant the property would suit. Eligible households then have the opportunity to register interest in the property. Finally, the provider can offer the placement to the highest priority applicant, which is determined based on the situation of the household, and nature (size, location) of the house that they require.

By adopting the CBL scheme, the government seeks to improve the efficiency of placement allocation. The scheme replaces a more traditional model where the provider makes an offer, for the household to accept or decline. Under CBL, the tenant proactively registers interest, thereby removing the decline/re-offer loop.

In 2016, the Irish Government released a follow-up report: Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness5. This report noted that:

  • most local authorities had already made provision for CBL in their allocation schemes,
  • the local authorities that have implemented CBL have refusal rates as low as 5% (as evidenced in South Dublin County Council), when compared to 40% or more in other local authorities, and
  • choice-based letting commenced in Cork City Council in November 2015 … [resulting] in an overall drop of 25% in numbers on the [waitlist].

Following these policy breakthroughs, the Irish government has indicated that it will continue to pursue implementation of CBL, or equivalent schemes, across all local authorities as quickly as possible.

Housing Passport

The Social Housing to 2020 report noted that the government intended to supercharge the wins from the CBL scheme by introducing a Housing Passport.

In Ireland, local authorities are responsible for assessing and placing tenants in their properties. Each of these authorities holds information on their applicants and tenants, although currently there is no system in place to share this information across territorial authorities.

The 2014 government report introduced the idea of a Housing Passport to facilitate greater movement of social housing tenants. It would allow social tenants to move across territorial boundaries more easily, perhaps to pursue employment opportunities, or to move closer to their family. The housing passport will enable those with a housing need assessed in one local authority to be housed in or transferred to another local authority’s functional area.

The government has not yet implemented its housing passport idea, despite pressure from the sector6. As such, it has not yet fully developed the finer details of how this policy would operate.

How we think it could work
The government could establish a central portal for social housing applicants’ information to be stored, encrypted and accessible only to the applicant, as well as the territorial authority that made the assessment.

If the applicant wishes to move to a different part of the country, they should be able to share their information and assessment with the new territorial authority, through the portal. The new territorial authority would then have access to the applicant’s records and add further information as necessary.

The Housing Passport would eliminate the need for the new territorial authority to reassess the tenant. Removing the delay of a new assessment will make it improve the mobility of social housing tenants, thereby enabling them to pursue opportunities outside of their current location.

Developing a portal of this nature paves the way for a more integrated social assistance experience. Once developed, the government could extend the portal to include, for example, other welfare services.

Lessons for the UK

More innovative and digitally-enabled solutions have the potential to save billions of pounds in the UK social housing sector. However, we believe true value in digital-change is only realised when it is treated humanely – not when it only brings a technical fix.

We believe that the Irish case study highlights the following benefits:

  • cultivating a digitally-enabled policy environment,
  • better supporting collaboration, and,
  • focusing on evidence-led user requirements in effective provision – both in the present and using this data for capital projects of the future.

Smarter solutions such as the Choice-Based-Letting scheme and the Housing passport model have the potential to deliver better outcomes for those in need of housing and value for money in existing public investment by better matching demand with supply and reducing vacancy rates. Enhancing the customer experience and empowering social housing applicants by granting more choice, involvement and mobility will improve social return on investment by reducing waitlists and improving freedom of mobility. This is a great example of the human side of digitally-lead change.

Taking inspiration from these local authorities and housing providers should be taking the lead in this area. Versions of both policies can be implemented on a local scale, independent of central government direction. Housing providers, individually or as collectives, can give social housing applicants a larger role in choosing their placement through digital platforms.

Provider-led innovations on managing tenant information can open doors to a wider provision of support or the purchase of services. A Housing Passport-type model, led by a housing provider, could easily extend to services such as housing utilities and banking, or social support such as mental health or budgeting services.

Although providers and commissioners are under enormous financial pressures, building partnerships across organisations (e.g. London Peer Group of Local Government Digital Service Standard or LGDSS) or with industry (e.g. NHS Digital Accelerators) offers a potential to deliver more, with less, better, if the freedom to experiment is supported.

We believe that pursuing new and innovative schemes for allocating social housing using data and digital channels to empower social housing tenants is critically overdue. If you’re keen to talk through lessons from Ireland, or other countries in our comparative review, please contact our team.

JAMES SWAFFIELD | CLIENT DIRECTOR

James leads our Government and Public Services team at Gate One. He has experience across advisory and delivery – working across providers and commissioners – with a focus on strategy, policy and service development.

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