At Shelter, our goal is to help people deal with bad housing and homelessness. We help people stay in the home they’ve got or, if they have lost their tenancy, to find a new one. And we want to ensure that people are living in safe and secure homes, so we help them understand their rights to improve poor conditions and, if necessary, challenge rogue landlords.
We do this through a combination of a free national helpline, digital advice, face-to-face advice and support, and legal services from our team of solicitors.
But changing demands, including an increase in the number of people needing advice, means we have had to adapt to be able to provide the most effective and relevant service we can. We have done this in two keys ways: by changing our geographical strategy and utilising new technology.
Firstly, we have focused our face-to-face services on a ‘hub’ model which means we have offices in larger urban locations, the so-called ‘core economic cities’. We currently have 12 in England: London, Thames Valley, Birmingham, Sheffield, Greater Manchester, Bristol, Merseyside, Newcastle, Plymouth, Dorset, Lancashire, and Norwich.
These hubs allow us to offer ‘end-to-end’ services for our clients – from initial meetings offering support, to specific advice to legal services from a qualified solicitor to take their individual case forwards if they are eligible. This approach allows us to place all our resources and expertise in one place, offering both a personalised service and one which is developed with the local community and relevant to its needs.
Online advice services
Secondly, we have recognised that many people calling our helpline are asking about the same things. So to relieve the burden on the helpline and ensure our advisors are spending their time helping those in the most acute need, we are increasingly encouraging people to get advice online. This can either be from our website or from our innovative web chat service, with advisors in our Sheffield hub giving advice direct to people on their phones, tablets or computers.
This technology-driven approach means we can give clients advice whenever and wherever they are. In the financial year 2016/17, almost 3.8 million people sought advice from our website and more than 100,000 enquiries were answered through our helpline and online advice services.
Our decision to focus on technology and to deploy our advisers in our urban hubs, where they can be part of a fuller and more holistic offer of help, means we need to think carefully about other projects which don’t fit this model. For example, we have some contracts which are partly funded by the Legal Aid Agency, but these do not offer the holistic package, only the legal advice portion.
We are still providing legal aid-funded work in urban locations but we have decided not to re-tender where there is no overarching package – Colchester, Truro and Crawley. These are services where we are either only or predominantly providing a legal service, rather than the ‘end-to-end’ offer of advice and support that people need from us.
Of course, anyone in these areas can use our website, web chat or helpline as the first port of call. Then, if they need further support and are eligible for it, the organisation that takes over these contracts can offer specialist legal advice.
This is a difficult choice and not one which we make lightly. But we feel it’s necessary given the constraints on our resources and our duty, as a charity, to constantly consider how to achieve the most with funding that has been generously donated to us by supporters.
We are determined to ensure that whichever organisations are awarded these contracts by the Legal Aid Agency are fully supported to take on the clients who they serve, in the smoothest transition possible.
- Many seek our advice on poor conditions. Sign our petition to help enable renters to take legal action over unfit and unsafe conditions.