Entry type: Single project
Country/area: United Kingdom
Publishing organisation: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and local partners
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-10-07
Authors: Maeve McClenaghan
The Bureau Local team is part of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and for the last six years has focused on community-driven data-led investigations that have both local and national significance and can spark change.
Through analysis of tens of thousands of rental property adverts and comparing them to the relevant rate of housing benefit in each area we revealed that a tiny fraction of suitable rental properties were now affordable for people who rely on benefits in the UK. This data analysis exposed the scale of the gap between rising rents and frozen benefit levels, and the significant impact of the UK government policy of freezing Local Housing Allowance since 2020. We created an open database for local reporters and an interactive tool for readers to see data on available properties in their area.
This project was done in collaboration with a homeless charity who have used the findings to lobby and campaign for a rise in Local Housing Allowance. We worked with a documentary production team who used it in a powerful film about a homeless family and the story was picked up by several UK daily newspapers. We made our database available to local reporters and activists who could examine and expose the situation in their region. The story highlighted the importance of the cost and affordability of rent at a time of huge rises in the cost of living, and moved the policy debate from a focus on energy affordability to housing affordability. The story was cited in the UK parliament and the collaboration with local journalists sparked several articles about the plight of renters at a time of a crisis in the cost of living, as well as a wider examination of the structural reasons why more people on benefits are reliant on the private rented sector and have limited access to social housing.
We captured the details of 40,000 two-bed properties advertised in July 2022, scraping data from the largest rental listing website in the UK.
We used the properties addresses along with OpenStreetMap’s Nominatim API to find the coordinates of each property we had collected data for, which allowed us to localise them within the right Broad Rental Market Area (BRMA) using shapefiles obtained from the Valuation Office Agency. We then analysed the data to ascertain the total number of affordable properties in each BRMA, as well as the increase in LHA that would be necessary to make the 30th percentile affordable.
To ensure wide accessibility to our findings, we built an interactive online tool which allowed anyone to find out the situation in their local area by searching their postcode.
Context about the project:
In order to get information from the biggest rental website in the UK, we had to create a scraper rather than using an API, and since we didn’t get coordinates from the website we had to use OpenStreetMap’s Nominatim API to find the coordinates. This created greater technical challenges than our previous attempt to gather similar information back in 2019, and was an innovative way to compare the two sources of data.
As well as the technical context being very different, the political context is also strikingly different, and this story showed the urgency of housing as a key part of the cost of living crisis. It firmly moved the focus of political debate from the “heating or eating” discussion, to one of viewing housing costs as a major driver of poverty among those relying on benefits as their main income. Although the government has not yet responded to calls to raise LHA, they have promised a Renters Reform Bill which they will address some of the instability renters face in the current economic climate, and it formed part of the discussion over the decision to raise Universal Credit levels in line with inflation, which campaign groups said was the initial priority to support those most in need.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
This project displayed the power of close collaboration with a campaign group whose expertise and detailed knowledge of the specific problems faced by their clients can help to shape an investigation that has real meaning and impact. The combination of skills with the shared objective of exposing inequality and injustice is very powerful, and can drive change in a way that public interest journalism strives to do. The collaboration with local journalists and their expertise in their own communities can also be emulated by other national and local journalists, as it increases the depth of the story as well as having specific impact in local areas.