Housing Ombudsman urges zero tolerance approach on damp and mould

26 October 2021

Our new Spotlight report says social landlords should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to damp and mould.

Front cover of report

Social landlords should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to damp and mould, says our new report published today. Addressing damp and mould needs to be a higher priority for landlords, states the report, with a change in culture from reactive to proactive in order to improve the experience of residents.  

Our report, ‘Spotlight on damp and mould – It’s not lifestyle’, examined 410 complaints investigated about 142 landlords over a two-year period, with maladministration found in 56%, rising to 64% for complaint handling alone. As well as casework the report also draws on more than 500 responses to our call for evidence issued earlier this year. This failure rate was often the result of inaction, excessive delays or poor communication.  

During our investigation, we found a general sense of frustration among residents, saying they felt they were not being heard or that their landlords were not taking their repair reports or complaints seriously. The impact on residents was clear, with distress and inconvenience reported together with concerns about health and well-being.  

The report recognises the challenges for landlords in tackling the issues – including overcrowding, poverty, the age and design of homes – but says landlords should avoid inferring blame on residents due to ‘lifestyle’, when it is often not solely their issue, and take responsibility for resolving problems. In support of this, the report identifies best practice and makes 26 recommendations for landlords to implement, including:  

  • greater use of intelligence and data to prevent issues 
  • adopting a consolidated policy for actions it may take based on diagnosis 
  • reviewing communications with residents to improve tone 
  • improve access to complaints to resolve issues, including alongside disrepair claims, and learn from them. 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “Throughout our investigation, the distress and disruption experienced by residents living with damp and mould was evident. These are conditions that no one working in social housing wants to see.  Our high maladministration rate shows that a fairer approach is needed. A zero-tolerance approach does not mean zero cases but it requires changes in culture, behaviour and approach by landlords – from reactive to proactive and from inferring blame to taking responsibility.  

“Our report makes several practical recommendations to prevent and resolve issues earlier, whilst recognising the causes of damp and mould can be many and varied, based on the extensive evidence we examined. Overall, landlords would benefit from a comprehensive and consolidated policy which sets out clearly and transparently the actions they will take to address the issue. This is already an area where some landlords are acting successfully, but this approach is not universal. 

“Landlords also need to ‘find their silences’ where complaints are not being raised when other indicators suggest there may be issues. Crucially, this includes maximising the potential for the complaints procedure to resolve issues and learn, without losing empathy when engaging with residents who can be deeply distressed. 

“Our investigation heard immense frustration and sense of unfairness at the information sometimes provided to residents about issues like condensation. This reoccurred so often it is appropriate to call it systemic. The word ‘lifestyle’, when it may be a consequence of limited choices, should be banished from the vernacular. 

“Whilst our report identifies several areas for service improvement, I also wish to recognise the good practice identified. This is shared in our report, and I hope this learning is helpful for landlords reviewing their approach.” 

The report also proposes landlords do not close their complaints procedure prematurely if a resident commences with the pre-action protocol as the Ombudsman does not consider the use of the protocol to constitute legal proceedings. This will maximise the opportunities to resolve disputes potentially sooner through the complaints process and less adversarial way.   

Read the report 

We have revised our Guidance on jurisdiction to make it clear that landlords should continue to use the complaints procedure until legal proceedings have been issued to maximise the opportunities to resolve disputes outside of court.  

All landlords are asked to consider their approach at their board through a series of questions, and to demonstrate to residents changes they have made. The report also encourages landlord managers and staff to use the learning in the report set out in best practice examples from across the sector as well as the real-life experiences of residents detailed in case studies from its investigations.  

We will follow up on the Spotlight report by monitoring landlord performance and considering whether further systemic investigations may be required in the future. 

See our Guidance on Jurisdiction

See our guidance for landlords on pre-action protocol