Common Housing Registers in Scotland

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Case Study - Dumfries and Galloway Common Housing Register

About this case study

The Dumfries and Galloway CHR is in its development stages, with initial discussions beginning in late 2003. The basis of the CHR model has been established by partners, and a decision has been taken to appoint a lead organisation to implement and manage an operational CHR. Two of the major social landlords operating in Dumfries and Galloway - the only landlords which operate solely within the local authority area - are both keen to act as the lead organisation, and both have submitted proposals to the CHR Steering Group.

As at October 2005, these proposals were being assessed by the CHR Steering Group with support from independent consultants. As a decision had not yet been taken, the content of these proposals was commercially sensitive and could not be outlined within this case study. However, discussion with partners indicated that the two models proposed by each organisation were substantially different and that the decision on which lead organisation to appoint would have a considerable impact on future CHR development in Dumfries and Galloway.

Introduction

Dumfries and Galloway has a geographically dispersed population covering a largely rural area. The area has just fewer than 150,000 inhabitants, its largest towns being Dumfries and Stranraer. The towns of Annan, Kirkcudbright, Moffat, Dalbeattie, Castle Douglas, Newton Stewart and Lockerbie also lie within the local authority area.

There are nine registered social landlords ( RSLs) in Dumfries and Galloway the largest of which are Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership ( DGHP), Loreburn Housing Association, Home in Scotland Ltd and Irvine Housing Association. Both Loreburn HA and DGHP operate solely in the Dumfries and Galloway area. Irvine HA has the majority of its stock in Ayrshire and Home in Scotland, a national RSL, has stock dispersed across Scotland.

The other five RSLs which operate in Dumfries and Galloway are national landlords - Trust, Cairn, Hanover, Margaret Blackwood and Key Housing Associations.

Landlord

Approximate Stock

% of Social Rented Stock

Dumfries & Galloway Housing Partnership

10,971

81%

Loreburn Housing Association

1,700

12%

Home in Scotland Ltd

556

4%

Irvine Housing Association

366

3%

Total

13,593

100%

DGHP was established in 2003 to take ownership of Dumfries and Galloway Council stock following a ballot of tenants who were in favour of whole stock transfer. The association is by far the largest RSL in the area, with the vast majority of stock for mainstream needs and a small proportion of sheltered housing. DGHP has indicated that although it experiences some variations in demand, it does not have any difficulty in letting properties. However, recent research commissioned by Dumfries and Galloway Council indicates that DGHP has significant issues of low demand in some areas. The Local Housing Strategy also identifies pockets of low demand across the region which impacts many housing providers.

Loreburn Housing Association has general needs, sheltered, supported and shared ownership properties, experiencing high demand in some areas while finding some properties in less popular localities slower to let. However, strategies to address the lower demand properties have been successful. Home in Scotland has a similar experience with stock demand, while Irvine Housing Association experiences high levels of demand for all its properties.

Stage One - Getting started

Establishing relationships

The development of the CHR in Dumfries and Galloway was instigated by the Council in October 2003, when all RSLs operating in the area were invited to attend the first CHR Working Group meeting. The impetus for this discussion came due to an invitation from the Scottish Executive for all local authorities to bid under the CHR Development Programme 2004/06. At this meeting, the partners gave their in principle commitment to pursuing a CHR for Dumfries and Galloway and agreed that the Council should take the lead in drawing up a partnership bid for funding.

After this consultation with 'the main local players' the local authority co-ordinated the funding bid for a total of £100,000 over 2004/05 and 2005/06. This bid identified the four largest RSLs - DGHP, Loreburn, Irvine and Home in Scotland Ltd - as the 'major lead RSLs'. The partners were successful in receiving the full amount, the majority of which is used to fund the post of a CHR Co-ordinator and administrative support. Later in 2004, Dumfries and Galloway Council also contributed substantially to CHR development through the provision of £100,000 for ICT development.

Project management and decision making structures

Following the successful bid to the Scottish Executive, the CHR Steering Group was established in May 2004. This group included the four lead RSLs and the five national providers with smaller stock numbers in the area, as well as Dumfries and Galloway Council, the NHS, Dumfries and Galloway Coalition of Disabled People and the Citizen's Advice Service.

Although many members of the Steering Group are not landlords or are not actively participating in the CHR, the partners felt that it was important to involve all stakeholders to enable CHR processes to make linkages with wider policy considerations, such as community care and support issues. In practice, however, the four lead RSLs are the most regular and consistent attendees at meetings, although all partners are encouraged to contribute to discussion and decision making.

Some partners feel strongly that there is a problem in that some staff delegated to attend the CHR meetings do not have the necessary seniority to take decisions and also do not attend meetings consistently. Sometimes this results in ' Chinese whispers' when staff at meetings have to report back to more senior staff at their organisation. At other times, partners feel the staff at meetings make agreements too readily and do not have the authority to implement the changes to which they are agreeing.

One partner also suggested that it could be difficult having a single forum for CHR discussions which brings together housing practitioners and those from other fields. This can mean that some of the non-housing partners do not have a level of understanding about housing concepts which other partners would consider as basic - for example, understanding what a housing association does. This can make discussion at meetings difficult.

In the near future however, the project management and decision making structures could change significantly. The Steering Group has taken the decision to appoint a lead organisation to deliver the CHR in Dumfries and Galloway and, as at October 2005, was in the selection process. It is anticipated that the appointment of a lead organisation to drive CHR development will impact on management structures, and partners suggested that a separate Management Committee could be formed by the participating RSLs to support the process.

Further detail on the appointment of one lead organisation to implement a CHR in Dumfries and Galloway is provided in Stage Two - The CHR Model.

Project support arrangements

Following the success of the Scottish Executive funding bid, the partners agreed in May 2004 to appoint a CHR Co-ordinator. The successful candidate was appointed in August 2004 on a two year secondment from Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership. Staff from Dumfries and Galloway Council, DGHP and Loreburn Housing Association were involved in the interview and selection process.

The CHR Co-ordinator is seen by partners as having a 'pivotal' role in the partnership. Soon after being brought into post, the Co-ordinator began work on developing a common application form, undertaking research on competing CHR models and comparing the allocations policies of all the participating RSLs.

Although most partners are happy so far with the way lead responsibility has been allocated, one partner is concerned that the partnership is 'not particularly driven - no-one is pushing it forward'. In addition, there was some initial concern that the CHR Co-ordinator would be biased towards former colleagues at DGHP. However, all partners agreed that these fears did not come to fruition.

At this stage, partners anticipate that unless funding continues after March 2006, the Co-ordinator will return to DGHP at that time. Partners are beginning to take steps to ensure that CHR development will continue after this stage. The Steering Group is currently in the process of appointing a lead organisation to drive CHR development in the future, and it is anticipated that this organisation will then take an active support and management role in driving the CHR forward.

Role of Dumfries and Galloway Council

As Dumfries and Galloway Council is no longer a landlord, it did not feel that it was appropriate to actively participate in CHR delivery. However, the Council has recognised its strategic role in assisting the development of a CHR by acting as the hub of CHR discussions - arranging and servicing the Steering Group meetings, acting as employer for the CHR Co-ordinator and allocating a significant level of funding (£100,000) to contribute to ICT expenses.

The Council also believe that the stock transfer has 'hugely' affected its ability to shape the CHR as it is entirely dependent on the partner RSLs to make decisions, with the outcome affecting the core business of RSLs and not the Council. As the Council has no housing stock and will not deliver or sustain the CHR once it is operational, the Council believes that it has ' no leverage and cannot manage the process' and that it can ' only encourage' partners to take certain actions. The Council stressed that it believes the Scottish Executive Guidance is particularly weak with regard to dealing with the stock transfer issue.

Dumfries and Galloway Council staff believe the approach to CHR implementation adopted at a national level has resulted in the Executive's staff resource being spread too thinly. They state this has provided little in the way of 'hands on' support at a local level. They also consider guidance to be too 'high level' and based on generic principles rather than the detailed practicalities required to establish an effective CHR. The result has been a feeling amongst Council staff that the national direction and associated support has fallen short of what they require. The Council feels that the RSL perception of a lack of drive at the local level has developed due to the lack of focus at the national level.

Stage Two - The CHR model

Developing an outline CHR model

Discussions about the CHR model to be adopted began in mid 2004 following appointment of the CHR Co-ordinator. A Steering Group meeting held in September 2004 focussed on discussing the 'Building Blocks' of a CHR in Dumfries and Galloway, using the model outlined in the Scottish Executive CHR Guide. The Steering Group managed to agree a basic framework at just one meeting. The model agreed was:

  • Advice on housing options - partners agreed to provide detailed advice on their own stock along with minimal advice on other areas. A referral process will be established for access to more detailed advice.
  • Application form - partners agreed to pursue the development of a comprehensive common application form gathering all information required by partner organisations.
  • Home visits - it was agreed that all applicants would be visited for the purpose of verifying information. This visit would take place at or prior to the point of offer.
  • Administration - partners agreed that one organisation would carry out administrative duties on behalf of the others.
  • Allocation policies - partners sought to develop a system which would enable applicant details to be re-ordered according to more than one allocation policy.
  • Health assessments - it was agreed that a shared health assessment process with common prioritisation would be put in place.
  • ICT requirements - all partners sought to have remote access to the central database.

Many partners were happy with the outline model agreed, and believed that it linked strongly to the core values of each of the partner RSLs. Many highlighted how straightforward it has been to agree on the basic principles of the CHR, but there was some concern that partners have not given sufficient consideration to the fine detail and practical implications of issues before making agreements. Some believed that when it comes to implementing the changes that have been agreed, some RSLs will realise what is involved and be unable or unwilling to follow through on what they had previously committed to:

"That's the problem; we've agreed everything too easily without considering the practicalities and specifics. When it comes to actually doing some of this stuff, that's when we'll see how effective it's been."

Others believed that the outline model is so general that it could be interpreted in very different ways, with one partner stating that " in reality [the partnership] haven't got a joint vision of what they want to achieve,…there are different means of achieving the core policies".

Finally, some partners raised issues about the affordability of the CHR model agreed - " the principles are great, but whether they are achievable is a different issue". They emphasized that given there is no commitment for ongoing funding of the CHR post March 2006 - with the exception of £100,000 from Dumfries and Galloway Council to meet ICT costs - cost would become a key issue with regard to the implementation and ongoing management costs of the basic model .

Despite these challenges, all organisations have found that the CHR partnership has greatly improved working relationships. There is now a greater understanding of what each partner does, how each organisation works and how all RSLs can work together more effectively for the benefit of tenants.

Establishing the detail of the CHR model

Having established the basics of the CHR model to be adopted in Dumfries and Galloway, the partners realised that it was now time to consider the practicalities and detail of how a CHR would operate in practice. Detailed discussions about issues such as the development of a common application form and health assessment procedures took place at meetings in late 2004 and early 2005. However, by March 2005 the partners had agreed that it was necessary to appoint a lead partner to deliver a CHR in Dumfries and Galloway, and subsequently manage the process.

Both Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership and Loreburn Housing Association were keen to take the lead in delivering a CHR, so the partners needed to establish a fair process for determining which organisation should drive the process.

Initially, discussions about appointing a lead partner focussed strongly on the ICT options available. DGHP and Loreburn HA both gave presentations on their ICT systems in April 2005.

The partners recognised, however, that a decision on which lead organisation to appoint would have a major impact on how a CHR would evolve in the area, and were careful not to rush into a decision. As a result, both organisations seeking to take the lead were asked to submit a proposal and business plan to the CHR Steering Group.

Proposals from DGHP and Loreburn HA were received in July 2005, detailing the CHR model which each organisation would deliver. These proposals built upon the basic CHR framework agreed by partners, and demonstrated how each organisation would implement a working CHR in the area. Costs for developing and managing the CHR were also set out, including staff time, administrative costs, ICT costs and overheads.

Following receipt of the proposals in July 2005, the partners decided that a full independent review of the two tender documents must be undertaken, given that this was such a major decision about how the CHR would progress. As a result, consultants were appointed to review the bids and make recommendations on the best way of developing a CHR in Dumfries and Galloway. As at October 2005, this assessment stage was still underway, with recommendations due to be made to the Steering Group by the end of the year.

At the time of this case study - October 2005 - these proposals were still being considered and as such were not yet in the public domain. The detail of the model suggested by each potential lead organisation therefore cannot be set out within this case study. However, Dumfries and Galloway Council made it clear that the business plans received propose very different approaches to CHR development. In hindsight, the local authority concedes that the brief issued to the RSLs interested in leading the CHR was too general, which has allowed some issues to be interpreted very broadly. This has led to the Steering Group now being presented with two diverse approaches to CHR development.

Although it is not possible to set out the two potential models for CHR development, the views of partner organisations towards the core elements of the CHR are set out below.

Advice on housing options

The 'building blocks' exercise undertaken with the Steering Group in September 2004 identified agreement that basic housing information and advice should be available from all partners, with a referral system for dealing with more detailed or complex enquiries. All partners agreed that this model was appropriate for Dumfries and Galloway, stressing that it was important that tenants and applicants can access housing information from all CHR partners. However, one partner believed that it was not practical for each RSL to provide comprehensive information about other organisations - such as demand, turnover and policy detail - and that for this type of information applicants would need to approach the appropriate RSL directly.

The way in which information and advice is provided will depend on which lead RSL is selected and how they propose this issue should be managed. Most partners hoped, however, that whichever lead organisation was appointed, issues will still be open to discussion with CHR development continuing in partnership - " we will be able to discuss it with them".

Application form

The CHR Steering Group, guided by the Co-ordinator, began work on the common application form early in the development process. Most partners agreed it was "quite straightforward" and took "only a few months" to develop - between September 2004 and January 2005.

The process involved the Co-ordinator collating the forms of each of the partners and simply amalgamating all questions into one document. This document was first slimmed down by eliminating all areas of direct duplication, followed by integrating questions that had semantic differences or small variations in meaning. Essentially however, all the questions that each RSL had included in its individual application form appeared in the new form.

Partners are at odds as to whether the current version of the common application form is a final version. Opinion on the form ranges from " very comprehensive" to "not too bad" to "don't really like it - too big and bulky". It is likely that some aspects of the form will have to be revisited in the future before it goes into general use. It has been indicated that applicant consultation would form part of the revision process.

Home visits and health assessments

Partners have agreed to share the information gathered at home visits meaning that only one visit to prospective tenants will be necessary. Although some RSLs believe this practice is " common sense", others are concerned that "other organisations don't understand fully the implications of this" and that there may be difficulties implementing this in practice . Again, this issue will have to be discussed in more detail following appointment of a lead organisation.

The process of conducting health assessments has already been harmonised across all partner RSLs. The partners have agreed shared criteria for awarding priority for medical need, and a shared process for assessing eligibility for this priority. The categories for medical priority were standardised through Loreburn Housing Association adapting its existing categories to bring them in line with the three tier system operated by all of the other RSLs.

Those RSLs which used external medical practitioners to complete the assessments agreed instead to start completing their medical assessments in house. Although some RSL staff were nervous at the prospect of doing the assessments themselves, others were unwilling to start using external medical advisors due to the additional cost it would incur for their organisation and would depart from recommended best practice.

All partners agreed the process of harmonising the health assessments was difficult and although some believe the matter has been settled, others believe there are still issues to be resolved about how this will work in practice.

ICT requirements

The original CHR model was based on all RSLs maintaining their own allocation policies and operating a multi-pointing allocations system to enable applicants to be ordered according to different policies within the CHR database.

The proposals submitted by DGHP and Loreburn Housing Association set out two different ICT solutions. However, neither of the systems set out the original model of a multi-pointing system, with all partners having remote access to the system. Dumfries and Galloway Council indicated that prospective lead RSLs are not willing to implement and maintain this type of ICT system due to the costs and complexities involved. Partners also stressed that the ICT system was based on an initial ideal, but then qualified by affordability and adapted and compromised to fit what others are able and willing to deliver.

Dumfries and Galloway Council feels that the partners need to 'thrash out the basic principles of ICT as the two tenders [for lead RSL] are so different'. While some RSLs feel that 'both systems will meet our requirements', others have strong views on which system would be the more suitable. Until a lead organisation is chosen, the final cost of an ICT system is unclear.

It is clear that ICT is a critical issue in Dumfries and Galloway and that the performance of the ICT system adopted could have a significant impact on the other elements of the CHR model adopted in the area. One partner suggested that this situation could have been avoided had a lead organisation been chosen at the start of the development process and the CHR model developed according to the capabilities of the ICT system.

The local authority strongly believes that ICT should be one of the first issues addressed by the partnership, contrary to the advice in the CHR Guidance which it feels is " not helpful, light touch and leaves too much to local discretion".

Administration and managing the register

It has been agreed that the lead RSL will take responsibility for the administration and management of the CHR. The lead organisation would manage the process of getting the CHR operational, and then maintaining and administering the register beyond that point. The arrangements for administration and management are set out in the two tender documents from the potential lead organisations and further information cannot be provided at this stage.

Stage Three - Integration

Integration with Choice Based Lettings

Although some organisations were "keen not to forget about Choice Based Lettings", others did not see it as a priority and "didn't see it fitting in very well with the CHR and legislation". As a result, CBL has not been considered as forming part of the initial CHR model, although some RSLs are keen to give it due consideration for the future development of the register. The model proposed by one of the lead partners specifically states that it will be able to accommodate a move to CBL for any of the partner RSL's.

Integration with homelessness

Whilst Section 5 referrals currently take place and partners are aware they must be incorporated into the CHR, the specific details of how this will work within the context of the CHR has yet to be decided. Some RSLs stressed that the changing legislation regarding homelessness would have implications on the number of homeless households needing to be housed through Section 5 referrals which means that these referrals would make up an increasingly substantial proportion of allocations.

Ensuring equality

As a disability interest group sits on the Working Group, the partnership has a high level of awareness of the needs of the disabled community in relation to housing. There have been discussions at the Steering Group regarding the potential of developing a central database of all adapted properties in conjunction with the launch of the CHR. However, the detail of this has not yet been decided.

The impact of the CHR on other equality groups - such as minority ethnic communities - had also been considered. Some RSLs highlighted the low numbers of minority ethnic households in their area of operation as a stumbling block to significantly increasing minority ethnic tenancies but were aware they " need to make sure [minority ethnic communities] are aware of social housing". Partners stressed that they believed it essential that they continue to forge links with diverse and disadvantaged groups to ensure widespread equality of opportunity in access to housing and the provision of services.

Stage Four - Delivery

Assessing and sharing costs

The tender documents submitted by Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership and Loreburn Housing Association both set out the anticipated costs of CHR development and delivery over the next three years. As the proposals are still being assessed, these costs cannot be provided at this stage.

As at October 2005, the partners had not yet begun discussions regarding the sharing of costs for the development or maintenance of the CHR. However, this is an issue which will need to be addressed as part of the process of assessing bids and appointing a lead organisation. The issue of cost distribution is one which concerns many partners. Currently, the majority of Scottish Executive funding is spent on the CHR Co-ordinator post and all partners are uncertain as to the funds they can make available for ICT and other aspects of CHR development.

Dumfries and Galloway Council has provided £100,000 for ICT development activity, but, despite this commitment, some partners believed that not enough support had been provided by the local authority in terms of meeting the ongoing management costs for delivering a CHR. Some RSLs felt that due to the strategic importance of the CHR in providing information for the Local Housing Strategy, the Council should be more committed to funding the ongoing costs of running the CHR.

In contrast, Dumfries and Galloway Council stresses its commitment to establishing a CHR - having provided both staff time and money. Council representatives emphasise that its lack of participation in the operational CHR (due to no longer being a landlord) is central to its decision not to continue funding the ongoing management and administration of the CHR once operational.

Despite concerns about lack of funding in the longer term, the partnership is currently under-spending as the CHR is not 'progressing as anticipated'. Dumfries and Galloway Council is concerned about this under-spend, but indicated that funding for the CHR has not been provided in a useful way - believing that the Scottish Executive is not "…paying for a reality,… just giving out chunks of cash that aren't getting spent."

Future development

The critical stage for the Dumfries and Galloway CHR in coming months will be the appointment of a lead organisation responsible for implementing and managing the CHR. This will be a key decision, and will have a significant impact on how the CHR develops.

Discussion with partners also indicates that the decision on the lead RSL may also have implications in terms of future participation in the CHR. One of the prospective lead RSLs has asserted that whilst they would be reluctant to withdraw from the CHR, they may have to consider their position if participating would impact on performance, loss of identity and costs that outweigh the benefits to be gained.

This would clearly have a major impact on CHR development, with Dumfries and Galloway Council highlighting that the loss of one of the prospective lead RSLs from the process would mean that the whole CHR would be brought into question. The two lead RSLs are the largest providers in the Dumfries and Galloway area - and the only RSLs operating solely within the local authority boundary. It will be important for partners to ensure that the choice of one RSL as the lead partner does not alienate the other potential lead organisation.