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Real Life Reform: The inside story

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Real Life Reform: The inside story

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Communities, Universal Credit

Real Life Reform: The inside story Real Life Reform: The inside story

Real Life Reform has been described as "powerful", "a must read" and "exactly what's needed” to bring the reality of the government’s welfare reforms to the public’s attention.

So what is it all about? 24dash asked Real Life Reform (RLR) for an update on a project that has got lots of people talking…

What is RLR?

It’s a research project aimed at understanding the impact of welfare reforms on social housing tenants by tracking a number of households over an 18-month period. It captures real experiences and reflects how people are responding to the changes.

How and why did it start?

Ever had one of those conference discussions where you are brimming with ideas to change the world (or your organisation) but then you get back to the office and the ‘in tray’ takes over?

RLR came from one of those conversations 18 months ago, when a couple of us discussed possible longer-term implications of welfare reform for the people affected by the changes.

How would they cope and respond? How would the benefit changes affect their tenancies, their health, well-being and lots more?

We also knew that the reforms could change the roles of staff and how we deliver services, so rather than make assumptions about how tenants may respond to squeezed budgets or welfare to work incentives we decided to find out for real.

We initially planned it in our own organisations (in Liverpool and Leeds) but then realised it had the potential to be bigger. We wrote a brief, approached the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC) designed a methodology and made it happen.

Who is involved?

The NHC advertised for other like-minded organisations to join the project and we found ourselves with an initial steering group of seven (now 10), all willing to contribute equally to a shared goal – to better understand the real impact of welfare reform. The University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy came on board to give it academic credibility and independence, and their input has been invaluable. 

Projects can take a long time to plan, but not RLR. We didn’t have time. Welfare reforms were happening. Within weeks the methodology was finalised, briefings written, an ethical statement produced and 30 staff trained to complete the research. Within three months we were ready to start our first interviews.

How does it work?

We currently have 80 case studies from across the North of England broadly representing the profile of social housing tenants. Our study isn’t about under occupation or unemployment; it doesn’t focus on any one element of welfare reform; and increasingly it is as much about poverty and problems accessing permanent work as it is about housing.

A face to face survey interview is completed every quarter. There’s no payment or incentive to be involved, yet 90% of those who took part in our last report (#4thRLR) have participated in one or more surveys. One case study said: “It gives us a voice, we don’t feel as isolated or ashamed as we [now] know others are the same; we feel we are being listened to.”

We couldn’t do RLR without them. They make it real by allowing us into their lives and sharing their experiences.

We also couldn’t do it without the researchers, a dedicated and passionate bunch of 30 frontline staff who do the interviews.

They don’t wear their housing hats; they don’t talk arrears; they are trained with support from the University of York to listen and capture data and experiences. They attend sessions with project leaders and the university to enable experiences to be shared and to ensure there’s consistency and continued learning.

It’s also provided a new forum for them to respond and cope with the reality of welfare reform, which is proving to be more harrowing than we could ever have anticipated.

Qualitative and quantitative data captured during the interviews is uploaded onto our database quarterly. The quotes and real stories are vital as these have made RLR compelling reading - real and hard to argue with.

Data is amalgamated, trends analysed and every quarter a report is written by four people, as well as them doing their day jobs. Why? Because it matters, it needs to be done and it's already making a big impact. As one of our facilitators recently said: “I am proud to do my small part in such a great project.”

What is it trying to achieve?

RLR is about sharing the reality of welfare reforms, via real evidence and data to help inform internal discussions, to help shape future services and responses to welfare reforms.

With academic support, it also enables housing professionals to lobby and raise awareness. Everyone involved agrees reforms are needed but are concerned that some may have long term and lasting consequences that could end up costing the taxpayer more.

We’re not out to prove a point; there are no preconceived ideas. The methodology makes sure we capture results and experiences objectively. Successes get reported but sadly there aren't that many. The results and the reports speak for themselves; for people on benefits or low working, the situation is getting worse. The levels of poverty and debt are increasing and concerning. The current and future impact on health is one to watch.

What impact is RLR making?

We challenge anyone to read RLR and not be affected. It’s well received, supported and used by many across the sector who confirm they use it to support board debates and operational reviews, as the research reflects their experiences.

Organisations outside the sector, including voluntary organisations, health agencies, politicians, religious figures and those in education are supporting it. The Joseph Roundtree Foundation, with their wealth of experience, have backed it, as our reports are increasingly about how people are dealing with poverty as much as they are about welfare reform.

Our twitter account - @RealLifeReform - has more than 1,000 followers who read, retweet and discuss issues. Report three reached more than 300,000 accounts in nine days.  The Guardian, ITV News and other media coverage has helped support our aim to change thinking. A 17-year-old woman said: “This isn’t living it’s just about existing.”

Membership organisations get behind it and bodies such as the CAB, Trussell Trust, Child Poverty Action and Young Foundation all reference the report. We can’t name everyone but many have played an invaluable role in getting the findings shared.

When people affected by poverty or reforms tell us what we say reflects their experiences, we are confident we were right to take that seed and make it grow. @ngoodrich87 said “you’re work is exactly what is needed to bring reality of reforms to the public’s attention” – his recent blog kind of sums it up.

Is RLR making a difference? 

Time will tell…it’s definitely made an impact and provided factual and real examples of how some people in 21st century Britain are living. Based on it, our organisations are making changes to services. We know others are doing the same. The difference it makes will depend on others and how much policy makers take heed. But if it makes 1% difference, then it’s been a success.

RLR started as a conversation between a couple of people – they decided to make it happen. Others shared that passion and came on board, and that little acorn of an idea has grown. It’s amazing what can be done when you put your mind to it and, who knows, it might grow even more before it’s finished.

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