This piece of work was undertaken using information gathered prior to, during and after a field trip to Amsterdam. My objective is to compare and contrast the allocations policies of Amsterdam and Leeds. Firstly, and fundamentally, there is one major difference in the allocations policies between the two cities: at the heart of Amsterdam’s allocations policy is ‘choice’, this is in contrast to Leeds City Council’s allocations policy where the main factor in the allocation of property is ‘need’.
However, the present Government has, through the ‘Green Paper ‘Quality and Choice – a Decent Home For All’, set out a number of policy objectives, and states that it
“sees a continuing role for social housing in providing decent homes for individuals and families who cannot afford the costs of buying their own home or renting in the private sector in the short or long term” (www.housing.dtlr.gov.uk, p.2)
Moreover, it explicitly mentions that it proposes a move away from the traditional ‘needs’ based allocations system now widely used; thus “increasing choice through lettings policies that treat tenants as customers and promote sustainable communities” (ibid). As will be demonstrated these views are central to the allocations policy in the Netherlands – the ‘Delft Model’.
Leeds is one of the largest cities in the United Kingdom with a population of 676,527 (1991 Census Data); Amsterdam is of a similar size with a population, at 1 January 2000, of 731,289 (www.swd.amstrerdam.nl) and is also one of the largest cities in Holland. With regards housing tenure as Appendix 1 illustrates there are several major differences; the most pronounced difference being owner-occupation with figures of 69% and 14% for Leeds and Amsterdam respectively.
At the heart of Leeds City Council’s allocation’s policy is the practice of allocating properties on the basis of need. A person’s need is established through the completion of an application form (Local Housing Registration form [LHR]) which requests information on the applicant’s personal circumstances:
* names of people requiring housing
* ages of people
* housing history
* employment status
* their preference of areas they wish to live in
* whether they have an immediate need for re-housing (for example fleeing violence)
* details concerning their current accommodation (whether, for example, they share facilities or issues of disrepair).
* any other details they wish to be noted by Leeds City Council
Completed LHR forms are entered into Leeds City Council’s computer system Orchard that automatically calculates their assessed need. In England 89% of authorities use “points systems as the primary system for ranking rehousing applicants” (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions [DTLR], Housing Signpost – Issue 9, at www.housing.dtlr.gov.uk).
The introduction of a housing register was required by Government through the 1996 Housing Act (Section 161), which “required every local authority to establish and maintain a register of qualifying persons” (DTLR, Allocation of Accommodation and Homelessness, at www.dtlr.gov.uk). With regards the type of register, and by definition what criterion they used to measure ‘need’, was up to individual authorities (ibid).
However, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), and in line with the Green Paper, ‘Quality and Choice’, “many social landlords are now undertaking reviews of their allocations systems with a view to promoting choice, mobility and social mix” (JRF, Findings, June 2001). The fundamental reason is that
“relying solely on need as a criterion for access (to housing), it is claimed, can reinforce the social exclusion of tenants by concentrating households in the most urgent need on the less popular estates with the highest turnover” (ibid).
The process of applying for a council house in Leeds is illustrated at appendix 2: an applicant completes an application form to get onto the Local Housing Register, they wait for an offer, are made an offer, they accept the offer and move into their property, or they refuse the offer and wait for further offers (unless they have Homeless Priority or Welfare Needs Priority – discuss later). This is in contrast the Amsterdam where applicants actively seek out properties through various media; these issues will be discussed later.
As appendix 2 illustrates at a number of junctures Leeds City Council applicants can, and often do, make the choice to seek accommodation in the private sector; or, indeed, they may seek a Housing Association property or purchase a house. This is of fundamental importance for a City with a void rate of 2.94% (Leeds City Council – Housing Monitor; as of week commencing 28 January 2002).
The factors that may impact on applicants’ tenure choice after applying for a Leeds City Council property are as follows:
* when they receive “information from local authority” they may decide that they will have a lengthy wait
* they may have waited for several years and received no offers
* they may decide that when they are made an offer it is unsuitable
* also, and not illustrated on appendix 2, tenants who have been allocated (as opposed to choosing) a property, they may decide after a short period of time that the property they were offered does not meet their needs and move on to another form of tenure
Leeds City Council does not use a points system as such; although each application receives a number of points, based upon the information they provide, allocations are made on a ‘priority group’ basis. Applicants are awarded to a group – ranging from Group A ‘Urgent need for rehousing’ to Group E ‘no immediate need for rehousing’. Group A cases have been assessed, though the undertaking and assessing of a report, as requiring immediate assistance which if not provided may impact upon their health in the very short-term. Those applicants in Group E are deemed to be ‘adequately housed’, that is they are not, for example, over/under housed, they have no health issues, they are not homeless or threatened with homelessness and do not share facilities.
Within each group there are sub-groups, Group B, for example, contains all applicants who have been awarded Homeless Priority, High Welfare Needs Priority and High Medical Needs Priority. Applicants can be awarded, or receive, multiple groupings, for example they may be Homeless and in Priority Need (Group A) and also share facilities (Group C) which would result in them having a grouping A + C.
Leeds City Council employs various people who have direct responsibility for the allocation of properties: Housing Managers, Assistant Managers and Rehousing Officers; although properties are allocated by some Estate Management Officers. The process by which a property is allocated is, from a local policy perspective very simple – a property becomes ‘ready to let’ having had the necessary repairs undertaken to make it habitable.
Leeds City Council’s Allocations Policy states that when a property is ready to let the applicant who is in most need, that is the applicant with the highest priority group, is awarded the property. If two applicants have Group A, the applicant with the highest ‘secondary’ Group is awarded the property.
Situations often arise where the allocator has to ‘drill down’ further, for example in situations where two or more applicants have been assessed as Group A + C + D. Under these circumstances the date of application is used to decide who is offered the property. As will be shown date of application, that is the time on the waiting list, is one of the main criterion for allocating properties in Amsterdam.
I have not, as yet, come across a case where the Grouping and date of application is the same. Should such a situation arise it is likely that other factors may come into play such as local connection (through family or employment).
There is an element of choice in Leeds City Council’s allocation policy, in that when applicants complete their application form they are able to express a preference for certain areas. In essence, however, all this means is that they are listed in the Orchards allocations system as requesting a specific area and when an allocating officer undertake a ‘property match search’ only those who have requested their specific management area are cross referenced with the property that is ready to let.
Although applicants cannot choose a specific house some Housing Management Offices [HMO] still keep an ‘Expression of Interest’ book where people can express an interest in a property they are aware is empty; applicants also visit housing offices and their details are placed in the housefile on a specific property that is in repair and awaiting pre/allocation.
An element of choice is not restricted to Leeds City Council’s allocation policy: a study undertaken by the Heriot-Watt University (Local Authority Policy and Practice on Allocations, Transfers and Homelessness) founds that
“most local authorities invite applicants to state preferences on area, property type, landlord, etc. Expressed preferences are not always treated as sacrosanct which is particularly the case for homeless households” (DTLR, Housing Signpost – issue 9, Allocating Accommodation, www.housing.dtlr.gov.uk).
If an applicant from Leeds expressed an interest in a certain property and are unsuccessful they have no immediate way of finding out why they were unsuccessful. They are usually informed (if they inquire) that the property was offered and accepted by an applicant with a higher priority. In Amsterdam the process is far more transparent and therefore more accountable – applicant/s can visit the Woningnet.nl. web site and find out who was allocated the property. If they disagree with the decision they can make a formal complaint.
In reality, and if Leeds City Council’s own Allocations Policy were strictly adhered to, there would be no need to employ people to allocate properties because, as has been stated the person with the highest assessed need for a property should be at the top of the list and be allocated the property. Therefore full automation could be implemented and the computer would automatically identify the person assessed as being in greatest need and allocate the property to them.
I am aware that the Orchard system has the capacity to do this but option has not been utilised for two main reasons: ‘human error’ that is where applications have been incorrectly entered onto the system and data transfer problems where data on applicants was incorrectly transferred from the previous ‘mainframe’ applications system to Orchard.
Both of these factors could be overcome through identifying training needs that would ensure application are correctly input (training was undertaken by all staff when Orchard was implemented) and systematically checking all transferred applications (seen as a very time consuming exercise).
There is, within Leeds City Council, concern that certain people – longstanding individuals and families – are leaving Local Authority housing because they have not been allocated properties. One common problem using a needs-based allocations system that I have experienced is where a family/individual has two or more children and are assessed as being, for example, ‘overcrowded by one bedroom’ and receive Group C priority.
These applicants have little chance in the short and long-term of being re-housed (unless they are willing to accept a ‘difficult to let’ property or in Leeds City Council’s housing vernacular an ‘Easy Let’ property) due to the fact that there will almost always be an applicant with a higher priority than them. A recent study by Sheffield Hallam University ‘New approaches to Social Housing’ confirms this, stating that using need as a criterion for rehousing means that
“existing tenant and those wanting to form households cannot compete with, for example, homeless households in terms of the criterion used to determine housing need” (www.jrf.org.uk)
Many Housing Management Areas in Leeds have ‘problem estates’; areas where demand is virtually non-existent, leading to a situation where there is high turnover and high levels of voids. Using need as a criterion for allocations results in a situation where those assessed as being in greatest need are often awarded properties in these areas. Due to the fact that high priority can, and often is, removed if Group B applicant refuse a ‘reasonable offer of accommodation’, applicant often feel that they have little choice but to accept these ‘difficult to let’ proprieties. ‘Single offer’ policies exist in 84% of local authorities (March & Mullins, 1998, p.184).
The Sheffield Hallam study also states that
“allocating on the basis of need has of late prompted growing criticisms and concerns because: applicants tend to have little choice about the property or area they are allocated to” (ibid.)
The fact that they have not actively chosen to live in these areas, and often have few, if any, local ties, results in what could be termed as the ‘move on’ culture – applicants become tenants in properties and areas they have little loyalty to and after a short period of time they either move to other Leeds City Council properties or other forms of tenure. Sustainable communities are, therefore, not created.
On a related issue, and an issue at the heart of Best Value (Best Value indicators BVPI66 a, b and c) are rent arrears. If an applicant has actively sought out, been offered and accepted a property it is likely that there will adhere to their tenancy agreement and pay their rent. There are, of course, circumstances where people may be unable to pay their rent, loss of/reduction in income for example.
However, there is, as appendix 3 illustrates, a correlation between choice and rent arrears levels. The figure for Amsterdam were obtained from Amsterdam City Housing Department’s web site and although I was unable to ascertain the frequency of the figures there is a clear reduction during the years 1990 to 1998; conversely Leeds has seen a year on year increase in rent arrears; for years 1990/00-2000/01 reduction attributable to the removal of water rate rent arrears.
Another fundamental difference is in the allocation of properties to those assessed as being an greatest need, in Leeds applicants can have homeless priority for several years and not have their Group B priority removed, unless they have refused a ‘reasonable offer’ of accommodation. Many applicants with homeless/welfare needs priority have been known to refuse multiple offers of accommodation because they do not like the area or type of property they have been offered. If they refuse a ‘reasonable offer’ it is deemed, with regards homeless applicants, that they are no longer considered to be homeless because they have refused an offer of accommodation.
Using the Delft Model those in most need are assessed in the same way as in Leeds, those found to be in a ‘life threatening situation’ receive a ‘priority card’. Those applicants with a priority card get preference over other applicants. If two people with a priority card bid for the same property the person who has lived longest in the same property will be offered it.
Unlike those with homeless or welfare need priority (both Group B) in Leeds any person in Amsterdam who has not found accommodation after 3 months has their priority card removed. The fundamental reason is that, whereas in Leeds a Group B applicant can state that no offers have been made to me, in Amsterdam applicants must actively seek out accommodation. This, again, shifts the responsibility for securing accommodation with the applicant and not the allocator.
Much has been written about the issue of ‘need’, many authors have drawn on the early work by Bradshaw. Need is measured in Leeds in relation to the ‘normative’ approach, that is where “the expert or professional, administrator or social scientist defines need in any given situation” (Bradshaw 1972, in McLachlan, 1972, p72). Although there appears to be a logical connection between need and allocation there are several inherent problems. One fundamental issue involves the definition of need; although definitions of need appear to be, at first sight, objective they are, in actual fact, as Brown (2000) asserts “based upon subjective rather that objective measures of need” (www.cchr.net); the assessment of need is, as Bradshaw (1972) maintains a “value-judgement” (in McLachlan, p.72.).