Newcastle upon Tyne was one of the first areas where Universal Credit was introduced, and Your Homes Newcastle have been managing its impact for 6 years. We have seen the progress of roll-out, from minor tweaks around the edges, to significant overhauls in IT systems and legislation. We are now in a position to reflect on how much Universal Credit has changed the way we approach rent collection, and the need to provide support to enable customers to manage their household finances and sustain their tenancies.
In advance of Universal Credit roll out, we had already established the impact Welfare Reform was likely to have on our customers and our ability to recover rent. Moving away from a generic housing officer role, we created Income Officers to work exclusively with current tenants. This allowed us to effectively manage the impact of changes such as the Bedroom Tax and Benefit Cap and proved vital to allowing us to effectively deal with Universal Credit when it did (eventually!) come around.
Initially we created a new project team of a select number of officers to manage Universal Credit roll out. This approach was beneficial to us in the long term. By having a team who were solely dedicated to UC, we were able to identify the challenges posed by the benefit and what changes would need to be made to systems and processes once numbers really ramped up. We also developed great local connections with the DWP and were able to co-locate staff in Jobcentres. This specialist project ran for over 3 years at an additional cost to the business but was essential to influencing how we needed to approach UC.
Our team recognise the importance of early intervention when customers move onto UC or experience a change of circumstances whilst in receipt of the benefit. Whilst labour intensive, it has always felt the right level of support to offer. Although we’ve been getting to grips with it for years, we always have to remember that very often it is a customer’s first experience of claiming benefit and as a landlord we can support them through the process. From September 2019 we rolled out a new Financial Inclusion Team to work within our Income service. This has ensured we have a resource to support customers where issues may have arisen with their claim or they’ve seen a drop in income. It also builds on the early work we did around getting to grips legislation. Having a resource which can quickly respond to key changes to Universal Credit means we are on the front foot and able to identify customers affected. Our Income Officer role has also changed, making the most of technology to ensure we are targeting the right customer groups, freeing up officer time to focus on maximising engagement with hard to reach customers. Our current annual expenditure on staffing and resources to manage Universal Credit is just over £120,000.
Although Covid-19 has been challenging for our customers, we are confident that the changes we made as UC rolled out, with a greater emphasis on maximising engagement and providing support, have put us in the strongest position to manage it’s impact. We have moved less cases through the escalation process towards eviction, and seen improved levels of rent collection and sustainment.