Ombudsman writes open letter to social landlords urging renewed focus on damp and mould approach

29 November 2022

The Housing Ombudsman has today written to social landlords about complaints relating to damp and mould asking them to renew their focus on the recommendations in its Spotlight report on the topic published last year.

The Ombudsman Richard Blakeway has today written to social landlords about complaints relating to damp and mould asking them to renew their focus on the recommendations in his Spotlight report on the topic published last year. The Ombudsman has also raised the handling of legal claims alongside complaints and published a selection of casework relating to tone and communication on damp and mould cases.

The report, entitled ‘It’s not lifestyle’, said landlords should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to damp and mould and give it a higher priority with a change in culture from being reactive to proactive. It stated that landlords should avoid inferring blame on residents due to ‘lifestyle’ when it is often not solely their issue, and take responsibility for resolving problems.

The Ombudsman has asked landlords to assess themselves against the 26 recommendations, engaging with residents as part of that and publishing the outcome. These assessments may be used as evidence during an Ombudsman investigation and his letter underlines that the use of ‘heavy-handed’ language such as blaming the resident’s lifestyle may result in a finding of maladministration.

The letter also highlights the Ombudsman’s concerns about legal claims and reminds landlords that they should continue to use the complaints procedure until legal proceedings have been issued. If a landlord does not progress a complaint because of a claim, the Ombudsman may use his powers to escalate it, but landlords should also contact the service if they can evidence they are struggling to progress it.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “Following the appalling and preventable death of Awaab Ishak, we are reinforcing the recommendations we made in our Spotlight report last year.

“The report highlighted our concerns about the tone of some communications, especially language such as ‘lifestyle choices’ and ‘behaviours’ that infer blame on the resident, absolving the landlord of responsibility. This underlying attitude can impede an effective diagnosis of the causes and timely actions that should be taken by the landlord. This reflects some of the evidence heard at the inquest.

“This call to change language has resonated with many landlords who have taken action. However, I am acutely aware that, given this language had become so widespread and accepted, the sector may still have some way to go before it is eradicated from the vernacular of social housing. I consider the use of patronising, stigmatising or potentially discriminatory language as ‘heavy handed’ and therefore may use our Scheme to make a finding of maladministration.

“Having an accessible complaints procedure is essential to promote alternatives to the courts to resolve disputes. I know there is poor practice in a minority of the legal sector in relation to disrepair claims. However, I have seen some landlords close complaints prematurely because the protocol has commenced. I would stress the importance of landlords remaining committed to inspecting properties as soon as a claim is raised and to completing the repairs needed as soon as is practicable.”

We have highlighted examples of damp and mould cases published since the report, as part of our routine publication of casebook which has now reached nearly 3,000 decisions. These cases focus on where the landlord’s communication and specifically use of the term ‘lifestyle’ has been raised in the assessment:

  • A complaint from a Torus 62 resident (ref 202102544) about mould growth where we found that the landlord’s language around the causes of condensation was heavy-handed and unreasonably attributed blame to the resident. We ordered the landlord to review its handling of the case and avoid automatically apportioning blame to residents, or using language that leaves residents feeling blamed, when assessing the cause of condensation dampness.
  • We made a finding of no maladministration in a case about Harlow District Council (ref 202012770) concerning mould at a resident’s property but noted use of the term ‘lifestyle’ in the landlord’s complaint response when referring to the cause of the mould. We recommended that the landlord review this in line with its Spotlight report.
  • A Westward Housing Group case (ref 202117711) where we found it was reasonable for the landlord to recommend lifestyle changes as a first line attempt to manage the ongoing problem, although the resident should have been encouraged to report back if this was unsuccessful, or if the problem worsened, which the landlord said it did. The resident said she had been wrongly informed that the damp and mould was due to her lifestyle and felt discouraged from reporting further issues.
  • We recommended that North Tyneside Council (ref 202109787) consider the appropriateness of citing ‘lifestyle’ as a cause of damp. In this case the landlord’s response to the report of damp was reasonable and prompt and no maladministration found but in its report, we raised the use of the term ‘lifestyle’ when actions by the resident may be the consequence of limited choices, and questioned if this term should be used, as it can give the impression of blaming the resident for the problem.
  • A Barking and Dagenham case (ref 202017534) where the landlord initially indicated that the damp issue the resident complained about was due to lifestyle but when it reviewed the case some months later found there was a leak from a flat above that it had previously been aware of.

The letter also refers to our Complaint Handling Code which stresses the importance of landlords having open and accessible complaints procedures, and using our powers to escalate complaints where appropriate.

Open letter to member landlords

Spotlight report on damp and mould: It’s not lifestyle

Guidance on legal claims and complaints

Complaint Handling Code