With Right to Buy sales falling to their lowest levels in eight years, Jackie Gill, product manager at software specialist IEG4, explains why digitisation could boost interest in the scheme
When Right to Buy (RTB) was introduced as part of the 1980 Housing Act, it became a way for people to purchase their council-owned properties at an affordable cost. For this reason, it was popular.
Yet, in 2020/21, RTB sales dropped by 35% – the lowest yearly figure in eight years. It’s likely that this dip can be attributed to the rise in the cost of living or the pandemic. It is, however, deeply concerning for councils who rely on the scheme as a way to generate revenue and boost their housing budget.
Until recently, councils had a time-limit of three years for this profit to be absorbed back into the community, in order to create modern affordable housing and further improvements to the area.
However, in March of last year, it was announced that the time councils would have to spend money received through the sales of homes through RTB programmes would increase to five years, meaning there would now be a larger than ever incentive for councils to encourage and enable residents to purchase their property through the scheme.
A complex process
Like buying any house, the RTB process follows multiple stages, which are difficult and lengthy to complete. In some cases, the entire process lasts over 12 months.
This timeframe, when combined with the fact that the government’s RTB form is over 15 pages long, cumbersome to complete, with a lot of information to digest, and with no fast way to get support if the applicant has questions, means there is a growing feeling that people are deterred from using the scheme.
Once the form is completed and posted, there is often a lengthy waiting period to see if it’s been received, and then approved or denied. This can be very stressful for the applicant, who naturally chases the progress of their application through calls and face-to-face visits to the council.
There is a simple fix to this issue. The use of online forms has accelerated within local government as digital transformation is embraced within the public sector.
Everyday applications, such as council tax registration, have been vastly improved by moving from paper-based forms that need to be printed and posted, to an online form that can be completed directly on the website, and sent with the click of a button.
“There is a growing feeling that people are deterred from using the scheme”
By its nature, a digital Right to Buy form is a lot more sophisticated than a registration form, and would likely require tailoring for each local authority to reflect local policies.
However, the benefits are many. Automatically the RTB application becomes a much shorter form for the applicant, as it reflects only those areas required by the circumstances of the applicant, and completion can be much quicker, and much simpler to navigate. It also means that all the guidance on how to complete the form and all the statutory wording for the applicant to read through is all in one easy-to-access location.
Southwark goes digital
Taking the digital form concept further, to make it truly transformational, we are working with the London Borough of Southwark and have created an online RTB application environment, which includes the form as well as a portal, which tracks the application with information on how to complete it.
The council’s previous RTB application process was delivered through a housing management system with an integrated module, but Southwark found this to be inflexible, so we were approached by the council to see if we could co-develop a new Right to Buy system.
When we started working with the council, we decided that a state-of-the-art Workflow and Document Management system was the best approach to meet their requirements.
The end goal
By simplifying the current paper-based method with a digital solution, we expect Southwark to soon start to see an uptick again in people considering the scheme, which could lead to increased revenue for the council to improve its local community and provide more affordable housing to their residents.
But above all, by providing a digital solution to the RTB application process, it will improve the resident experience, keeping them informed on every step on the status of their application, avoiding unnecessary contact to the council in progress tracking. Digitally transforming the process takes the complex and makes it simple, providing citizens with an easier path to owning their own home
Image: Jackie Gill, product manager, IEG4
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