Written by Laura Woodroffe

Redbridge Council faced an increasing demand for temporary housing. People evicted from the private rented sector were spending longer and longer homeless in B&B accommodation. Find out how the team reduced the number of families living in high-cost B&B’s to zero in just eight months.

Darren Fairclough is Homelessness Reviews Manager at Redbridge Council. He manages the review process for people who find themselves in temporary accommodation, often after having been evicted by a private landlord. In 2017 he took part in the Design in the Public Sector programme along with the Head of Housing Needs and a member of staff from the council’s transformation service.

“A high number of people were being evicted and then getting stuck at expensive, often out-of-borough, B&B’s,” says Darren. “On the one hand, we were looking at landlords and how we could engage with them better - get them to see the social consequences of an eviction, rather than just chasing a better economic outcome. On the other hand, we were looking at those people and the reasons it was so hard to get them out of temporary accommodation.”

If we hadn’t done the Design in the Public Sector programme we would have almost certainly continued to do [things] in the same way

Darren Fairclough, Homelessness Reviews Manager, Redbridge Council

Darren and his colleagues were introduced to the programme by Corporate Director of Strategy, Simon Parker, who made the original application. “The Mayor of London has designated a new Housing Zone in Ilford Town which will provide over 2,000 new homes including 500 affordable homes by March 2021,” says Simon. “This was positive for the future but didn’t address the short-term. Our residents were living in difficult circumstances, impacting their families and placing a significant strain on their wellbeing.”

The Council was also grappling with a £4.5m overspend on temporary accommodation and the hidden costs of the additional support that residents in temporary housing required from the local community and Council services. “We needed to find a way of taking immediate action to meet this escalating demand,” says Simon.

The Challenge

“We arrived at the programme thinking very much from the perspective of engaging landlords differently to try and prevent as many evictions,” says Darren. “But the framing and shaping exercises we completed at the beginning of the Design in the Public Sector programme, quickly changed our focus. In particular, the ‘Hows and Whys,” exercise, which helps you to keep on digging deeper and deeper for insights, turned up much more relating to tenants, than to landlords. We realised that there was much more scope to make a meaningful impact in the short-term there.”

The team identified what they felt was a significant barrier to moving people out of temporary accommodation. “There was a big disconnect between the realistic housing options that were available to customers, and what they were able to see as a positive choice,” says Darren. “This would lead to situations like three family members staying in a single B&B room for nine months when there was a three-bed house available for them. It just wasn't in the area they wanted to be in.”

Far from being stubborn intransigence, the Council identified that this difficulty moving people was a trust issue. “People didn't understand what was realistic,” says Darren, “and even when they were given that information they didn’t believe it. So, you would get your families staying in a B&B, holding out for social housing that isn't there, or a better offer locally that wasn’t going to come.”

What we did

As a result of the initial sessions on the programme, the team started a programme of research. They wanted to better understand the customer’s position and identify ways to improve the communication and trust between them, and the housing officers dealing with their cases.

We didn’t necessarily know at the outset where it would lead, and what we were going to do, and that was okay.

Darren Fairclough, Homelessness Reviews Manager, Redbridge Council

The team conducted sixteen 90-minute interviews with customers. They used a customer journey mapping technique learned during the programme. Two members of the group would attend each meeting, one acting as interviewer. The other actively listened and sketched out the customer journey that unfolded and recorded positive and negative reactions. These interviews had two significant findings:

  • The customers who could remember more of the information their housing officer had given them at the beginning of their application, were much more likely to report a positive experience.
     
  • The process was too functional and customers felt lacked empathy. This was weakening the trust between customers and the council. It also undermined the work that housing officers were doing to create a realistic picture of options for people.

As well as researching with customers, the team also held a workshop with the leadership team at the council. “We wanted to make sure they understood that the approach we were taking was evidenced-based,” says Darren. “Aspects of the Design in the Public Sector programme were familiar, but the way in which the project then developed was quite unique. We didn’t necessarily know at the outset where it would lead, and what we were going to do, and that was okay. Instead, we built up an evolving picture from the evidence. We weren’t just jumping in. We knew exactly how we’d got where we were.”

Results

Headline result: In June 2017 Redbridge Council had 183 families who had been in high-cost bed and breakfast temporary accommodation for more than six weeks, exceeding the statutory time-limit.

By February 2018 they had reduced this number to zero. They achieved this in a number of ways:

1. Structured conversations for better relationships

The council had a dedicated officer who worked solely with families living in temporary accommodation. Interviews with families followed a fairly set pattern, led by the officer outlining the options available. “If we hadn’t done the Design in the Public Sector programme we almost certainly would have continued to do those interviews in the same way,” says Darren. “We wouldn’t have spotted the opportunity to make an impact there.” 

 The team developed a Pro-forma for the officer to use to guide their initial interaction with a family. The new meetings followed a more consultative and empathetic model, opening with a discussion of the families’ priorities, rather than a list of options from the council. The tenant's engagement with the process increased and they began to see it as centred around their needs. Trust levels between tenants and the officer were much better and consequently they were better able to persuade tenants of the merits of moving into more suitable accommodation.

 You can see the Pro-forma the council designed here. Despite the initial success of the interviews, Darren feels there are still improvements they can make. They are currently in the process of making iterative adjustments to the form to get even better results.  

2. Ongoing contact with tenants to better rehome them

The increase in trust that the new interview style brought meant that housing officers were much better equipped to create an ongoing relationship with families and build rapport over time. Things like coordinating property viewings became much easier, and customers more likely to respond positively.

The headline result of a reduction to zero of the number of families in temporary accommodation was achieved through several means, and it is not easy to untangle them all. However, the council could see that 75 of the families that moved on did so directly after an action by the officer. This could have been a recommendation for a particular area and advice about relocating there, or it could have been an introduction to a housing authority or landlord. The fact that the officer was able to have a direct effect through these actions demonstrated that the new communication approach was working.

3. Mindset change

“The way that we train our officers is changing to become much more customer-centric,” says Darren. “This is very important for us because the passing of the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act gave councils much more responsibility to help people who found themselves homeless. We needed a more collaborative approach. Accordingly, our focus is on giving officers the influencing and persuading skills they need, rather than hard knowledge and technical skills.”

The team have shared the basic principles and knowledge widely at the Council. During Innovation Month, an ongoing Council initiative aimed at bringing people across the organisation together to talk about innovation with internal and external experts, they ran an open workshop for anyone from the council to attend. Attendance was excellent, with around twenty participants from across the organisation. Crucially they were able to attract a range of departments, and levels of seniority including; officers, managers, heads of service, and even elected council members.

Sometimes a seemingly small adjustment to communication with a customer can have a huge impact. This insight was the key to Redbridge Council’s success. The positive results are contributing to a mindset change at the organisation that shifts the perception of resident’s as passive receivers of information to active participants in at the centre of a conversation.

Design in the Public Sector aims to help local authorities commission and deliver improvements to public health services. The programme builds an understanding of how design practices can enable local government professionals to shape and deliver improved services.

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