By March next year a £300,000 incentive scheme for thousands of Bradford Community Housing Trust tenants is expected to be in operation throughout the metropolitan district. JIM GREENHALF reports.

Handing out prizes such as a 32in flat-screen TV and free tickets to a Bradford Bulls match would be generally considered unusual behaviour for a landlord.

Bradford Community Housing Trust, which runs about 22,000 former Bradford Council flats and houses, has been behaving like Father Christmas since last year.

Charles Morris, a BCHT tenant in Little Horton, received tickets for a Bradford Bulls home game against Salford Reds.

"We enjoyed that day out - I took two of my sons and one of their partners. It was an afternoon game. We were there about half-an-hour before kick-off.

"We had access to the bar and the executive suite. Food was laid on and we got to meet Robbie Paul and had a photograph taken.

"Some of the prizes are quite good. I would personally endorse the scheme; it gives you something to look forward to," he said.

The "scheme" in question involves signing up to the terms of a Trust Loyalty Card. Essentially it means paying rent in time, looking after your property, agreeing to the residents' charter regarding the upkeep of gardens, being a considerate neighbour and proving access for annual gas servicing.

In return good behaviour is rewarded with prizes, ten per cent discount offers with local shops and grants for education and recreation.

The scheme involves some 3,200 tenants across three of the Community Housing Trust's six area offices. By next March it will be in operation across all six with a projected budget of about £150,000.

"But for every pound in the budget we hope to save two," said Ian Simpson, chief executive of the East Bradford Trust.

"We are looking for savings of £300,000 in terms of promptly-paid rent, reducing the length of time we have empty properties so we have less to spend on repairs. We are obliged to service gas appliances annually. If we cannot get access we have to go to court and that costs us £270 a time."

The evidence produced by Mr Simpson and Khaqan Mirza, promotions officer for the TLC scheme, shows that improved behaviour has accrued savings of up to £30,000. Of 200 additional members in 2005, 50 complied with the gas servicing regulations and 150 started dealing with rent arrears.

"The scheme is becoming big in the Benelux countries and in Germany. There is a conference next week in Lincoln bringing together UK housing associations and European partners about running reward schemes," Mr Mirza said.

Interest in the UK has been slow primarily because most public sector housing belongs to local authorities. Bradford Council transferred its entire housing stock to the Community Housing Trust in 2003 (local housing authorities are not allowed to build new houses). The Trust's TLC scheme is run by a private commercial company called Countdown.

Mr Simpson said: "Irwell Valley in Manchester started it with their Gold Star Service. We have adapted it to suit ourselves. They worked out they could give their tenants £1 per week back. We decided to have prize competitions, grants for education. We have spent the money in a different way.

"What I would like to see is that people actually value a tenancy with BCHT. As part of that they could have a package that others don't get. So why don't we look at other things like health care and personal services - ironing, cleaning?

"This is about getting people staying loyal to the brand. Generally we are all creatures of habit, we are loyal to what we know. If we can reduce negative spending - we can spend £2,000 a time on repairing a vacant let - we can reinvest in the housing stock.

"Some people thinks it smacks of commercialism. Ever since the Poulson scandal local authorities are reluctant to be seen cosying up the private sector in getting discounts."

Mr Mirza added: "It's cultural as well. There are superflight helicopters that can change direction in a second. Local authorities are like oil tankers: altering course takes them ages."

There's truth in that, otherwise something similar to the TLC scheme would have long ago been offered to council tax payers who pay their bills not only on time but in a lump sum as well.

Against that, sceptics on the board of the Community Housing Trust have challenged the need for the Trust Loyalty Card scheme. Tenants are obliged to sign up to a Tenancy Agreement anyway.

"That's been our biggest criticism," Mr Simpson said. He regards offering incentives for good behaviour as a way of reducing costly anti-social behaviour.

"Eighty per cent of our tenants take up no time at all. They pay their rent on time and cause us no bother. But 20 per cent of so-called bad tenants take up 80 per cent of our time.

"We are trying to persuade people to meet their responsibilities. It's another method of customer care," Mr Mirza said.

Cards have to be renewed every year. Defaulters are not included in prize draws and do not qualify for any of their other incentives.

A little TLC, as they say, goes a long way.

By January next year other changes to the structure of Bradford Community Housing Trust will have taken place.

The six area housing trusts will be kept although they will be called Local Management Trusts. They will have greater autonomy as separate businesses to manage existing property and build new homes.

Next month, Bradford Community Housing Trust itself will metamorphose into a housing association with the job of administering the overall operation and keeping up to date with new legislation.

Ian Simpson said: "We have the agreement of the Housing Corporation and Bradford Council. We are having meetings in our six areas. I expect the change to happen in December."

Isn't there the obvious danger, however, that the new organisation will become too centralised?

"We are mindful of that. That is why it is important that we maintain local contacts with our tenants. The Local Management Trusts will still have tenant representation," Ian Simpson added.

I gather that the principal idea of the change of status is to take greater advantage of available Housing Corporation grants for new homes.

Some 600 houses have been lost to housing trust's stock since 2003 through right-to-buy legislation. Between 2006 and 2008 it is hoped that at least 200 new homes will be built.