With lockdown restrictions further lifting on 4 July, charities have a lot to think about.
The aim is to get more social tenants online to help them benefit from digital living - from finding out about local services and schools for children, to applying for jobs and managing rent, banking facilities and benefit claims online.
The Digital Deal has a broad agenda and there is enough money available in the fund to support worthwhile and interesting projects. For landlords who do not currently have a digital inclusion strategy, or have not delivered meaningful results from it, the Digital Deal provides a prompting and an opportunity to raise awareness and focus within the organisation, formulate a business plan, and cherry-pick some proven projects to start the ball rolling.
Applications are invited from social landlords or consortiums led by a social landlord, and applications will be judged against value for money, social outcomes, feasibility and motivation. The criteria are also clearly hunting for innovation and for new ideas, and ideas that are effective rather than demanding of resources. In particular, the Digital Deal champions online services, and has made funding available for training/awareness for tenants, buying equipment for tenants to use, and buying and implementing tenant communications infrastructure.
However, the funding is not going to support big-spend projects. The Government has called the pot “The Challenge Fund”, and there is currently just £400,000 available to meet all applications. The vision for the Digital Deal is to grant ten awards, i.e. £40,000 per project.
The funding is offered on a matched basis, so if a project is awarded £40,000 from The Challenge Fund, housing associations and consortium partners must contribute at least another £40,000. Thankfully, applicants don’t have to panic about finding the funds, as the matched contribution can be a contribution in kind, such as the cost of staff resources.
The Digital Deal encourages landlords who have led the way so far to share their knowledge with other landlords, who are catching up. Funding could be used for the leaders to “push” their solution and help other landlords to implement their tried-and-tested solutions. Leaders could upscale their initiatives or support a number of localised ‘copy-cat’ projects.
While the Digital Deal is not necessarily an easy opportunity to utilise, the emphasis on innovation, knowledge sharing, data sharing and the use of IT to meet service and cost-cutting objectives are positive for the social housing sector. If approached in the right way with a well thought through project plan, an applicant can increase interest in their project, as well as avoiding having to make changes to the project idea at a later stage.
As a priority, a project plan should include “built in” compliance with regulatory laws. The cheapest and most effective way is to get legal input at an early stage in the formation of the project, to ensure that all compliance is correct and watertight. Customer-facing online technology, and the communications and financial transactions that are made using the technology will be subject to data protection, confidentiality, consumer laws and online regulation, and these also need to be prepared for.
If funding is achieved, there will be terms and conditions. The Government is likely to be quite assertive about certain items, such as the milestones that are achieved, and ownership of intellectual property rights. These conditions should be considered and the terms read carefully, as there may be some flexibility around the edges.
The Digital Deal is a classic “more for less” initiative as, whilst the funding offer is modest, the Digital Deal makes some big asks. Some applicants will relish the challenge of finding brilliant new solutions on a tight budget, whereas others will see the fund as piling more pressure onto landlords without providing much opportunity.
However, dismissing the opportunity would be a mistake. The emphasis on landlords to use IT to achieve improved service and savings is only likely to increase and it would certainly be beneficial for the sector to respond as soon as possible. Although the amount may seem modest, every little helps and support from central government will go some way to ease the strain.
David Hall is a senior associate at Anthony Collins Solicitors.
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