Local authority choice-based lettings schemes
Choice-based lettings schemes allow applicants to search, apply and bid for social rented properties in their area.
Law and guidance on choice-based allocation schemes
Subject to the provisions of Part 6 of the Housing Act 1996 a local authority can allocate accommodation in a manner they consider appropriate.
None of the current statutory codes of guidance on allocations give guidance specifically relating to the operation of a choice-based letting scheme.
How a choice-based scheme works
Under a choice-based lettings scheme an applicant can bid for properties that they are interested in. Generally, accommodation is offered to the bidder who has the highest priority under the allocation scheme, and matches the lettings criteria for that property.
Local authorities may attach criteria that restrict bidding for particular accommodation, such as adapted properties.
In one case, the High Court held a local authority could lawfully set a threshold number of points below which an applicant could not make bids under the scheme. This was the case even though the operation of the threshold effectively excluded some applicants within reasonable preference categories from bidding.
Restrictions on choice
Some local authorities may restrict the number of bids an applicant can make.
Authorities may limit the period during which homeless applicants who are owed the full housing duty and placed in temporary accommodation can exercise a choice under its allocation scheme. A scheme whereby such applicants were deemed to have bid for a property ('auto-bidding'), whether they had viewed it or not, two months after they were notified that the auto-bidding procedure would apply to them was held to be lawful.
The length of the period during which homeless applicants in temporary accommodation should be allowed to exercise a choice about whether to bid for properties or not, should be 'realistic'.
There may be other sound management reasons for restricting the choice of accommodation for particular applicants. This could include sexual or violent offenders who could pose a risk to others.
Assessment and priority
As with all other systems of allocating accommodation, a local authority choice-based letting scheme must give reasonable preference to those categories of people as set out in section 166(A)(3) of the Housing Act 1996. Some authorities have adopted a banding system that groups applicants into a limited number of 'bands' which reflect different levels of housing need or relative priorities within the allocation scheme.
Simple banding schemes have the advantage of being clear and relatively simple to administer.
Use of quotas
Some authorities may use quotas within bands, for example by setting a target for a proportion of large family-sized accommodation to be allocated to overcrowded households. The use of quotas can make a scheme less transparent but the High Court held that this was lawful and any disadvantage was offset by a more equitable distribution of scarce accommodation. In that particular case this meant that the applicant would have to read the authority's allocation policy in conjunction with its annual or mid-year reports to understand how the scheme determined priorities between applicants at any particular time.
No requirement for cumulative preference
The House of Lords has ruled that there is no requirement under Part 6 for a scheme to distinguish between applicants who have a reasonable preference by reference to the relative degree of their needs. However, there may be exceptional circumstances when it is irrational, and thus open to judicial review, if a scheme does not distinguish between levels of priority.
In addition, the House of Lords found that there is no requirement for local authorities to frame their allocation schemes to provide for cumulative preference (ie affording greater priority to applicants who fall into more than one reasonable preference category).
The length of time an applicant has been waiting for an allocation or has been in a priority band, as well as any local connection between the applicant and the area they wish to live in may be used to determine preference between applicants given similar priority under the scheme.
Last updated: 22 March 2021
s.166(2) Housing Act 1996; para 4.3 Allocation of accommodation: Guidance for local housing authorities in England, MHCLG, June 2012.
s.159(7) Housing Act 1996.
R (on the application of Woolfe) v Islington LBC  EWHC 1907 (Admin).
R (on the application of Tout a Tout) v Haringey LBC and R (on the application of Heff) v Haringey LBC  EWHC 873 (Admin).
Babakandi v Westminster CC  EWHC 1756 (Admin).
R (on the application of Ahmad) v Newham LBC  UKHL 14.
s.166A(5)(c) Housing Act 1996; see also paras 26 and 27 Providing social housing for local people, MHCLG, December 2013.