SECTION THREE: CHR COMPONENTS
There are three key components to a full CHR:
- a common application form;
- a single database of applicants; and
- shared provision of housing information and advice.
However, CHR development is often an incremental process. For some partnerships this means establishing some of the key components ahead of others as they work towards developing a full CHR.
CHR Key Component 1: A Common Application Form
The common application form should gather the key information that you and your partners require to assess applicants' housing needs. Experience across Scotland shows that developing a common application policy between partners makes developing the common application form, and more importantly the application process for applicants, significantly simpler.
The information gathered in the form obviously depends strongly on your allocation policy.
The form you produce should be as user-friendly and uncomplicated as is practical. The needs of the applicants should be foremost when partners are designing the application form.
The application form that you produce will be influenced by the model of CHR that you adopt. For example, if you choose a simple model which requires more limited information ( e.g. if you adopt a single-pointing system or a choice-based approach) then the form is likely to be smaller. If you intend to undertake home visits on application you will need to decide what information is required in the initial application form, and what will be collected during a home visit.
Key issues include:
- don't start developing the form before the partnership has agreed the objectives and preferred model for the CHR;
- look at the model you are developing to assess what information needs to be collected and at what stage of the process. Be clear about what policies will be used to assess applications;
- where more than one allocations policy is involved, compare policies to identify core information requirements;
- separate out issues which attract points for only a minority of partners' policies - negotiate with partners who use this information on whether they can do without it, or collect it themselves later in the process;
- compare definitions for different aspects of housing need such as overcrowding, housing conditions and health; and
- take your own legal advice to ensure that all questions are compliant with legislation on equalities, Data Protection and European Convention on Human Rights legislation.
When to develop your common application form
CHR lead officers feel that developing a common application form early in the process is beneficial as:
- it gives an early sense of achievement and momentum to the development process;
- it gives impetus to greater harmonisation of policies and/or procedures where it is clear that the form will be too lengthy without this; and
- it provides stakeholders with an opportunity to 'road test' the form ahead of full implementation.
You should not finalise your form before other elements are decided (such as the ICT or decisions to harmonise policies/procedures) as these element will influence content. However, it is important to think about the form early in the development process.
"EdIndex was driven by the idea of having only one form - getting the same number of points from landlords was the obvious next step on from that." (EdIndex partner)
ICT and the common form
Previous research 2 on CHRs in Scotland found that there are links between the design of the common application form and the complexity of your CHR ICT system.
You will need to consider how the common application form will fit with your ICT solution. The questions you ask will have implications on the system build, and vice versa. But remember, your ICT solution should not drive the process. Devise a form that is first and foremost easy for applicants to use, and secondly gives each partner the information they require. Then think about how you can use ICT to achieve this. Detailed guidance on ICT is provided in Section Nine: Using ICT to Run Your CHR .
An important aspect of the application form, and a key issue for monitoring and forward planning, is how you go about gathering information on equalities groups. In addition to standard information on age and gender, CHR application forms should ask for information on ethnicity and disability. Suggested categories for monitoring are detailed in Appendix Two.
A common application form and guidance should be accessible to all potential applicants. It should meet RNIB Clear Print 3 and Plain English Campaign 4 guidelines. The CHR partnership should ensure that the application form/guidance can be provided in other formats (large print, Braille or audio) and can be translated into different community languages.
Example: Developing a common application form
Between 2005 and 2007, the three core partners in the Midlothian CHR - Midlothian Council, Melville Housing Association and Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association - met on a regular basis to develop a common application form. At the same time, Midlothian Council was developing a new housing allocation policy, which made the process slightly easier.
In developing the new policy, the Council worked with Melville HA and Castle Rock Edinvar HA to ensure commonality between their policies. The two Associations already had very similar policies. The Council made sure that the categories used within its allocation policy matched those of the housing associations. The pointing framework was still different, but the broad categories were the same. Because of this similarity, it was much easier to develop a common form.
The partners already had very good working relationships, and simply worked through what each partner needed from the form and included this. Generally, the partners agreed that if one partner needed certain information, it should be included. It was relatively easy to agree questions that gathered all of the information required. Although the final form was quite long, it did mean that each of the partners got what they needed from it.
The partners launched their common application form in February 2008, at the same time as Midlothian Council introduced its new housing allocation policy.
Example: Learning from others
Developing a common application form in West Dunbartonshire was a process of joint working with all partners fully involved, but initially one partner took the lead by collating the information in each partners' existing application form. Each partner sent a copy of their application form to the volunteer who collated the information. The HOME Argyll application form was also issued as a 'benchmark' for the form. This was seen as a good template, firstly because it was already operational, and secondly, because of one of the partner's involvement in HOME Argyll.
A draft application form was discussed by the partners at a steering group meeting, which literally consisted of going through the form page by page with partners commenting as they went through. The application form was then re-drafted based on this discussion, and a final version agreed.
The same process was undertaken to create a common medical form. One partner took responsibility for collating the information contained in each partner's existing medical form and designed a draft version of the medical form. The partners then worked together to comment on the draft, offering additions or amendments before finalising it.
Example: Developing an online application form
Apply4Homes, the CHR which is being developed in Aberdeenshire and Moray, will involve a web-based application system. The Apply4Homes website will provide a broad range of information on local housing including:
- information on a location map;
- information on each settlement and local services;
- links to partner websites - such as Shelter and CABs;
- key documents - including the housing options guide; and
- basic information on partner allocations policies.
It is intended that the application system will be "intelligent", tailoring the questions to the applicant. This means that if the applicant only selects one landlord, they will only be asked the questions needed for that landlord. The planned system will have information and advice for applicants as they fill out the form - for example, if they make limited choices or restrict themselves to landlords with low stock levels or high demand areas, the system will point this out to allow them to amend their choice. The idea is that the questions are tailored to their needs and that the system allows them to make informed decisions about their application.
Applicants will be able to approach any housing provider for advice about an application. Access issues have also been considered. Not everyone has access to the internet and there are many vulnerable applicants who might struggle to use an online system, so support will be available for people in completing the application. Laptops or PCs are to be available in partner offices.
CHR Key Component 2: A Single Database of Applicants
A common database can perform two main functions:
- it allows partners to share applicant information, required for assessing housing need; and
- it allows partners to gain an overview of demand for social housing in their area and to see who is in greatest housing need.
Not all CHR partners need to have a direct link to the CHR database. More peripheral partners are more likely to receive shortlists or single nominations from the CHR.
Previous Scottish Government research setting out CHR Case Studies 5 demonstrated that the database of applicant names is essentially a "behind the scenes", organisational issue which enables the delivery of a CHR. The real benefits to applicants come from a common application form and co-ordinated information and advice provision. But the case studies found that partners have often seen the development of new ICT systems as a way of solving underlying problems or challenges in CHR development and this in itself has caused problems. The prioritisation of ICT issues in some partnerships has led to a focus on the development of a common database, with less consideration given to improving the process from the applicant's perspective.
It is important to bear in mind that:
- ICT merely delivers a CHR, and should not dictate how it is developed;
- it is simpler to design a common database that points according to one allocation policy; and
- there is a relationship between the complexity of a CHR and the complexity of the technology required to deliver it.
It is worth noting that in some cases where there has been an incremental approach to CHR development, initially establishing the common application form and joined up information and advice elements of the CHR has in itself improved the applicant experience.
Example: Building the database on an existing system
In Fife, partners developing the CHR have taken the existing Council system and amended it so that it works for them. The Fife Housing Register ( FHR) partners agreed to host their common applicant database on a specifically designed allocations module within the Council's existing housing management system.
The system is located on the Council's network which allows all the partners to access it in real time. However, the system is not online, nor is it web enabled. All forms are input by a team which is managed by Fife Council on behalf of the partners. Across the partnership there are around 500 people who are able to access and view the FHR system but only this team can modify or amend application information. That means that only one team are inputting applications on behalf of all the partners although all users have access to facilities relative to their role within the housing access system including instructing changes, modifications and other updates.
The system automatically points the applications based on the FHR "Common Assessment of Need". This is a joint way of assessing and prioritising applicants, which has been agreed by all partners. The system also includes a register of properties, and users have a range of criteria to match applicants with available properties.
Why did they go with this system?
The partnership explored a range of different ICT options but ultimately the existing system was seen as being "tried and trusted" in that the Council system already had a number of the capabilities that the FHR required. The Council also had the skills in house to support the amendment of the system as necessary to meet the needs of all partners. Fife Council had previously worked with the software provider and they developed the concepts and functionality together. The key was to keep the ICT system as simple and stable as possible so partners chose technology that was already being used and was regarded as the safest option.
"We had a choice of either a high risk, high cost, unknown environment, or a CHR that was running with technology that we already know, in house."
CHR Key Component 3: Joined-up Housing Information and Advice
One of the essential - and often challenging - components of a CHR is the provision of coordinated and high quality information and advice covering all the social housing stock in the area. Applicants should be able to approach any partner to gain access to consistent housing information and advice. This means that partner landlords must be able to provide information on other landlords' stock or have robust referral/signposting procedures in place to give applicants access to the advice they need.
Partners need to be clear about the information and advice they will provide and what they expect staff to be able to do. The service provided should comply with the Scottish National Standards for Information and Advice Providers . 6 Approaches must ensure that anyone who may experience barriers as a result of accessibility, mobility, language or other issues can access the same quality of information and advice. Partners should make best use of available data sources in the provision of accurate and up-to-date housing stock information such as the Scottish Continual Recording System ( SCORE), the Annual Performance and Statistical Return ( APSR) and the CHR itself.
There are a number of options for delivering information and advice:
- all or some partners are equipped and trained to provide a holistic housing advice service covering providers using appropriate tools (such as a housing options guide);
- partners provide a more limited level of housing options advice covering all stock, but use a referral process for more detailed or specialist information;
- a one-stop shop for housing information and advice; and
- a combination of the above.
There should be ongoing training for the provision of information and advice. New staff should be adequately trained and there should be periodic refresher sessions for all staff.
Find out more...
The Scottish Government has produced a factsheet on CHRs and the provision of housing information and advice. It sets out good practice on delivering housing advice and how this can be linked to your CHR model and is available here . ( http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2005/08/19120545/05461 )
The Scottish Government's Information and Advice Standards Unit maintain a database of housing options guides which are completed and updated by local authorities. These examples can be viewed here .
Example: Providing housing information and advice
In Highland applicants can access information and advice on housing:
- from each partner landlord's offices;
- on the partner websites; and
- on any of the Council Service Points (which provide information on Council services).
For example, the Council website provides links to wider information sources - like the Housing Options Manual and the Streetwise Directory, which provides advice for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in the Highlands area. The application form includes information on how to complete the form and a detailed guidance booklet has been developed to help people with this.
The application form is paper based. It can be downloaded, but needs to be printed and sent to any partner office. It is logged and assigned to that "holding office". Then the applicant can call anyone for advice or information about their application. The idea is to do as much as possible at the first point of contact, but then provide advice from whichever partner office the applicant wants to contact. The system is updated daily and all the partner offices then log on to the same system.
Each holding office is responsible for getting back to the applicants and inputting the application information.
Example: An online housing information and advice site
HOME Argyll have set up a housing information and advice website, at www.homeargyll.org . This site has been extremely well used. Since HOME Argyll was launched in October 2006 the site has received an average of between 800 and 1,000 hits per month.
People are using the site to get information on all housing options - including owning, renting from a housing association, renting privately, and presenting as homeless. In 2007, the most popular pages related to:
- information about housing association options, costs of renting, location of properties and the common allocation policy (at least 3,965 hits);
- estate agent contacts and advice about owning a home (at least 3,804 hits);
- renting privately (at least 1,363 hits); and
- homelessness and urgent housing need (at least 837 hits).
The website has been used by both customers and staff as a way of gathering information about housing options in Argyll. It provides a user friendly one stop online information point which was not available before the launch of HOME Argyll.