The London boroughs of Camden, Islington, Barnet, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea have teamed up with St Pancras & Humanist and Ujima Housing Associations on a project that gives local citizens more say in where they live.
The basic idea behind the Home Connections project is that home seekers will be able to "bid" for the right to live in a vacant property using points that are awarded to them on a basis that reflects the level of housing need and the number of people in their household.
Home seekers will be provided with a user ID and a PIN number, together with an information pack showing how they can bid for a property. Bids can be placed either via an automated phone line, available in seven languages, or via the Internet.
Potential bidders can assess their chances of getting a property by using a self-assessment function on the Web site. The highest bidder, which should turn out to be the most suitable applicant, will get to view the property and, if it is suitable, to move in.
Home Connections project manager Ninesh Muthiah says that the choice-based lettings system is a big improvement on the previous one where tenants were assigned properties by the council. It resulted in tenants being placed in areas where they did not want to live. If they refused to accept a property offered they would then be suspended from the housing register for a year.
"It was a very coercive process," says Muthiah. "With this project the councils are giving up control of the process, putting the home seeker in the driving seat."
The new system will result in fewer refusals, properties staying vacant for shorter periods, more satisfied customers and a more transparent process, he says. The results of the "auctions" will appear each week in the local press, including the number of points the property went for, to show bidders why their bid was unsuccessful and give them an idea of the types of property available.
Unsuccessful home seekers will be encouraged to explore alternative avenues, such as relocation. The London consortium has teamed up with 12 local authorities in the North of England where supply of council housing exceeds demand. Free travel to view properties and relocation grants are available as incentives for people to move.
The pilot project in Camden went live in July, with the rest coming on board in September and October. Muthiah says that there have been 800 users in Camden alone, generating thousands of bids. All potential users have been sent a PIN and ID number automatically.
The project has received £1.4m of funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, £400,000 of which has been spent on IT. The two main suppliers on the project were Anite Public Sector, which developed the electronic Gif-compliant Internet element of the scheme, and Mitel, which provides the telephony.