How to get a council house: down memory lane

The Channel 4 documentary, How to get a council house,  takes me back a way. My first real job, in Hartlepool, was allocating council houses; I was the sole lettings officer for a stock of about 12,500 houses. Tower Hamlets has just over 13,000 council houses and what seemed to be an army of people doing the job. There were striking differences from the way things used to be done. First, people are invited to ‘bid’ for express a preference – despite the (fairly obvious) problem that the vast majority have no hope of being considered, and in some cases there would be well over a thousand people having their hopes raised. Second, people were being told how long they might have to wait, even though it was clear to them that it wasn’t a queue and the length of time was not what mattered to get priority. Third, the computer provides the answer, and the council takes multiple viewings at a time to get the allocation done as quickly as possible.

That last bit is something of an improvement. When I started in the job, I asked the person who’d done the job before me how the decision was made to allocate which property to which person. Part of the answer was based on an assumption: people from the old town wouldn’t want to go to West Hartlepool, or vice-versa (though no-one actually asked them). Then came the main issue: how clean and respectable they were. Prospective tenants were graded as excellent, good, fairly good, good, fair, moderate, poor or shocking, and the quality of the property they were offered matched their assessment. (That was fully in accordance with Macey and Baker, the leading textbook on housing management at the time: “The personal suitability of the applicant and his wife are a guide to the type of dwelling to be offered.” ) I did change the way things worked – introducing a points scheme, allowing preferences, giving priority to need and doing what I could to stop the grading. I wasn’t popular for doing it.

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