New digital tool is aimed at helping benefits claimants make choices around managing family budgets and seeking homes
The London Borough of Enfield has developed a digital tool to support residents in managing their household budgets and guiding them towards affordable accommodation.
It has developed the Affordability Calculator in a project with IT company entitledto, adapting its budgeting tool with a specification laid down by the council.
They expect to launch the tool for its own use within a few weeks, close to the turn of the financial year, and to make it available to other local authorities when it is satisfied that it works successfully.
“It provides the customer with a really useful tool, allowing them to play with budgets to maintain their incomes,” said Chris Pigott, the product owner at Enfield, adding: “It places the emphasis on the citizen, providing an advisory tool in their decision-making.
“Every local authority has a duty to help local people threatened with homelessness to avoid it, and this can help them to become self-sufficient and recognise their own responsibilities.”
The tool, which is available to residents through Enfield’s website, uses guidance from organisations such as the Association of Housing Advice Services to break household expenditure into essential areas – such as clothing, food, toiletries and work travel – and non-essentials such as gym membership and spending on pets. The system is sufficiently flexible to allow for elements to be shifted into different groups if deemed appropriate, and can include contributions from non-dependents.
Users enter their estimated spending and income per month in each area and are shown an overview of money received and spent and the balance. These are compared with average figures, which are taken from national sources but can be adapted to local circumstances.
The tool can provide options on how users can change their spending to balance their budgets, and provides a guide on how differing costs, notably for housing, can make some areas more affordable.
“It’s encouraging the customer to think about the way they are spending money,” said Mike Bobbett, a consultant in digital solutions at Enfield. “It says you should look at reducing non-essential expenditure,” although he emphasised that the decisions on spending will always rest with the user, not the council.
“It’s important to realise that it is guidance,” he said. “We are not telling people to do anything, but providing useful information to help them make decisions.”
Other features of the tool place the emphasis on housing, with a tab to point users towards affordable areas, based on data from local housing association rates for specific postcodes and rent figures from the Valuation Office Agency, which updates the figures every six months.
Links with property sites such as Zoopla make it possible to identify properties that are currently available for rent in specific areas.
Users can also request an email with the financial figures from their calculations in PDF format.
There are also links to job hunting websites, including the Universal Jobmatch on GOV.UK, which can steer users towards the work prospects in different areas.
“Ultimately it means that people can find places to live that they can afford, which is better for their health and wellbeing that somewhere tlhey cannot afford,” he said.
The initial plan is to “get real customers” using tool.
“It will not be perfect when it goes out,” said Pigott. “It’s only when it has been road tested by external customers that we will pick up some things that we need to change. In the first months we’ll iterate its development with the market in Enfield.”
The borough has approximately 41,000 people on housing benefit, which Pigott said provides an indication of those in financial difficulties and that “tens of thousands” of these would find the tool useful to help keep track of their budgets.
“It’s all part of the digital customer platform we’ve been developing over the past 18 months,” he said.
He added that there is an intention to make the Affordability Calculator available to other organisations in the future, and that this is likely to be done on a commercial basis as it was developed with a private enterprise.
There is also the potential to use it a template for other budgeting and analysis tools for service areas such as social care.