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Councillor PJ Ryan

Concern over ‘digital divide’ for social housing applicants

CLARE County Council has moved to reassure the public that a new on-line system for advertising social housing won’t disadvantage those who are not computer literate.

The issue was raised at the monthly meeting of the authority by Councillor PJ Ryan who said constituents had been contacting him to voice concerns over the new Choice Based Letting (CBL) system, which allows people to view newly-available properties and make a bid from them through an on-line platform.

“There is a bit of nervousness and a genuine fear out there that if you are not computer literate, you will miss out,” the Independent member explained. “If, for example, someone doesn’t find out for a week or ten days that a property is available, it’s unfair that they might miss out. In other cases, people might not be literate and have to rely on family or friends to make their application. Those people could miss out in this system too.”

Councillor Ryan’s motion calling on the local authority to ensure housing applicants are not disenfranchised was supported by Councillor Ian Lynch. “People have been raising this problem lately,” he said. “They are only beginning to get used to the system and it’s definitely causing stress, especially for older people.” The Kilrush-based member urged the authority to consider a text-alert system to make people aware of properties becoming available. “Everyone has a phone,” he noted. “A simple alert system should be offered.”

Councillor Michael Begley urged that the CBL system be revisited to ensure fairness, while Sinn Féin’s Councillor Donna McGettigan said she had also had people raise concerns with her. “People have been contacting me to say they’ve lost passwords and can’t access the system anymore,” she said.

Councillor Johnny Flynn agreed that a number of housing applicants felt they were missing out. “There is a digital divide,” he noted. “A number of people would prefer a paper-based system because they are not digitally literate.”

The CBL system was described by Councillor Gerry Flynn as “far from user-friendly for a certain cohort of people”. “There are also people who have had to ask friends or family to act on their behalf and their privacy is at risk,” he said. “Councillor Ryan has tabled this motion in good faith because we are all getting complaints. There is a perception that people are being disenfranchised by this system and it is this perception that we have to address.”

Director of Social Development, Anne Haugh noted that the CBL system was part of the action plan from the government’s Rebuilding Ireland initiative and was aimed at reducing the turnaround time from properties once they became available for social housing tenants. “Clare County Council has come fairly late to the game on this,” she told the meeting. “Other local authorities have rolled out the system earlier and have had positive reactions from the public. The hope is to reduce the turnaround time for properties and to minimised the time while someone is considering an offer. The objective is to shorten the time that a house will be vacant. It has reduced this time and also reduced the number of refusals by applicants.”

A written response from the council to Councillor Ryan noted that: “To date, properties for the elderly or which suit people with disabilities or with mobility issues (adapted houses) have not been advertised on CBL. Choice Based Letting (CBL) is available to those on the Social Housing list with certain housing stock (including leased homes and voluntary housing properties) being made available for letting advertised on our dedicated CBL website www.cbl.clarecoco.ie The system itself is very user friendly and is comparable to many other platforms regularly used by customers of Clare County Council. That said it is recognised that a number of our applicants may need support, guidance and assistance in using this system and these supports are available from Council staff and support service agencies. In addition the Council work closely with the HSE Disability Services to ensure their service users are aware and supported when a suitable property is advertised on CBL. All elected representatives have access to the CBL site to view available properties and help constituents to negotiate the site.”

Ms Haugh also noted that, as per government guidelines, not every property was uploaded and that a range of supports were in place for people who needed them.

“Covid-19 interrupted our education system that was designed to introduce people to the online platform and give them individual guidance from housing officers,” she noted. “We would hope to be able to restore this and we haven’t abandoned the plan to offer further education around the system.”

Ms Haugh said that the idea of the text alert system would be something that the council would look at.

“Many people have really welcomed the CBL system,” Ms Haugh noted. “People can see pictures of the houses that are available and get a sense of them and then decide if they want to make a bid for them. Using CBL doesn’t override the terms of the social housing allocation policy.”

Councillor Ryan thanks Ms Haugh for her detailed reply and the efforts she had made to reassure him that the CBL system did not place certain people at a disadvantage. “It is a good system,” he noted. “But it does need a few tweaks to make sure people are not being left out.”

 

About Fiona McGarry

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Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald. Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti. She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at NUI Galway. If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at fmcgarry@clarechampion.ie or telephone 065 6864146.

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