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Camden New Journal - FORUM - OPINION IN THE CNJ
Published: 19 July 2007
For housing, we shouldn’t need to click on home page

Society’s most vulnerable will be left at the back of the queue if bidding for social housing is taken over by the web-savvy, argues Robert Latham

RECENT reports that Camden Council intend to restrict its advertisements of properties under the Choice Based Lettings Scheme in the Camden New Journal raise serious causes for concern. Any local housing authority is under a duty to promote equality of opportunity. Should Camden restrict its advertisements to their “homeconnections” website, this objective will not be achieved.
Camden, as any other inner-city housing authority, has a housing stock limited in quantity and quality. It currently has 14,863 households registered for housing. Only 1,300 homes were allocated last year. The number of new lettings falls year on year. In 2002/3, 1,700 homes were allocated.
Priority is assessed according to a “points system”. The basis upon which points are awarded is intended to ensure that housing is allocated to those in greatest need. These are likely to include the must vulnerable members of the community.
Camden introduced its Choice Based Lettings Scheme in January 2004. Instead of housing officers determining what accommodation to allocate to the applicant with the highest points, applicants can now bid for any accommodation that is available for letting. This scheme is popular with applicants. It offers much greater transparency in the allocation process. The change is to be welcomed, provided that vulnerable applicants, who may struggle with the bidding process, are not put at a disadvantage.
In 2005, Shelter published a report, A Question of Choice: Good Practice And Issues In Choice Based Lettings. The stark conclusion was that Choice Based Lettings schemes were marginalising vulnerable and homeless applicants.
The author, Catherine Grannum, studied eight London authorities including Camden. The many positive effects of Choice Based Lettings were noted. Several of the policies that Camden had adopted were given as examples of good practice. However, the major drawback of Choice Based Lettings Schemes was the impact on vulnerable applicants, whether the elderly, the young, the disabled, those who do not have English as their first language, those with difficulty reading and writing, or those with chaotic lifestyles. Such applicants may well be victims of racial harassment or domestic violence.
In January, the Department for Communities and Local Government published a consultation paper, Allocation of Accommodation: Choice Based Lettings. This highlighted the need for local housing authorities to have policies and procedures which are compatible with their obligations under the Race Relations Act 1976, Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. These emphasise the need to promote equality of opportunity and eliminate any procedures which lead to unlawful discrimination.
There should be transparency. Authorities are urged to develop specific measures to ensure that vulnerable applicants are able to participate fully in the bidding process.
The impact of marketing solely through on-line bookings was recently demonstrated by the allocation of tickets for this year’s Glastonbury Festival. As the festival organiser Michael Eavis has conceded, the festival was taken over by middle-class, middle-aged professionals who were best able to manipulate the system.
Concerns arise if it impacts upon social housing.
The motive behind Camden’s proposed change has not been specified. Is it political pique because of the CNJs coverage over the cuts which the council is seeking to oppose on the voluntary sector in Camden? Or is it merely another money-saving exercise which will impact upon the most vulnerable in Camden?
Next Tuesday, Camden’s executive will consider a report on its allocations scheme. It is a complacent document.
Although the report pays lip service to the need to ensure equality of opportunity, there are no monitoring statistics to assess the extent to which the most vulnerable applicants have been able to participate in the bidding process or whether accommodation, particularly the better homes, is being allocated to those in greatest need. Neither is there any consideration of the impact of vulnerable applicants of restricting the manner in which properties are advertised.
In such an environment, discrimination thrives.

* Robert Latham is a housing lawyer and a former Camden councillor

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