Picture of Annette Benson and think image

Annette Benson works for Catalyst Housing and has worked in social housing for nearly 30 years. Annette leads the Orchard User Group’s Rents  modular group. Here she discusses how the collective knowledge and practical experience of the members of the Orchard Rents User Group has gone beyond being ‘just about software enhancements’ to become a lifeline to many dealing with the challenges of Universal Credit.  

It is unarguable that the introduction of Universal Credit has had a significant impact on social housing organisations and recipients in a very short period of time. Trying to understand what was coming and when it would come, was very difficult because the details frequently changed. This made it challenging for organisations to anticipate and proactively prepare for the future changes. For example, how do you ask your suppliers to make changes and developments when you’re not even sure what changes are going to come? And all this has come at a time when social housing organisations have been affected by major changes in national policy, such as the cut in income from social rents.

From my personal experience and through involvement in Orchard’s independent User Group of over 90 organisations, a big positive to come out of this period of uncertainty, is how we have all gained from collaborative working between organisations of all shapes and sizes across the country. As a group, we recognised that by working together, supporting each other, championing everybody’s needs, and using our invaluable shared knowledge, then we would get through the challenging period while continuing to better serve our customers.

Colleagues from North West organisations were the first to experience the impact of Universal Credit and their experience brought invaluable insights for the User Group. The members learnt from both their knowledge of the regulations and their best practices of implementing new regulations. For example, they explained the potential issues of ‘Lobster Pots’ and how if a single mother (on Housing Benefit) had a partner (receiving Universal Credit) move into their property, that their housing benefit would be ‘potted’ into their partner’s Universal Credit entitlement even if they were not on the tenancy. This is something that many of us had not previously considered, but would have a significant impact. Therefore, to hear of examples where this had actually happened meant we were able to come up with approaches to resolve problems. These solutions ranged from a focus on building a trusting relationship between housing officers and customers; to deciding at what point it was appropriate to apply for direct payments due to the ‘vulnerability’ of the customer.

Hearing shared experiences also helped us to understand the likelihood of delays in payments. For example, one organisation explained that because customers had little confidence in being paid their benefits on time, they would pay two weeks rent and hold back the remaining money in case their next installment was late. Not only did this result in landlords getting rent payments between 5-10 weeks late, it also meant that customers were reluctant to sign up to Direct Debit agreements. So instead of having to wait to find out ourselves, the experience of others in the User Group again gave us the opportunity to think of practices and processes that could be used to tackle the problem.

Feedback amongst the User Group continually raised awareness of many different situations being faced and helped us to understand the complexity of the new regulations. Further value came from the ‘tips and tricks’ that enabled us to operate better and make the day-to-day lives of impacted customers better. If we had gone through this alone then there would have simply been too much to learn all at once. But working collectively meant we could learn from each other and it was invaluable to ‘walk through’ the end-to-end tenant journeys.

By getting such invaluable insight from other organisations, we were able to do everything we could to be prepared about the changes and to continue to provide excellent service to customers. The most important outcome of Orchard users coming together to face these challenges, is that the value of the collaboration is not just for now. We know we will face further challenges ahead. Working together has helped User Group members to build a far reaching network of contacts that can prepare for and support each other to successfully respond to the challenges ahead.

Annette Benson, Orchard User Group: Rents sub-group lead.

Calling our Rent Modular Group: Tell us about the real life examples and best practices you learned about when working on the Universal Credit project by clicking here.