Ombudsman issues evaluation of responses to damp and mould report as complaints continue to rise

2 February 2023

The Housing Ombudsman has provided an analysis of responses from landlords to the Spotlight report one year on and proposed ten ‘key tests’ for landlords who are producing action plans, as the sector reflects on the inquest into the death of Awaab Ishak and the continued influx of damp and mould cases.

We have issued an updated damp and mould report, alongside an evaluation of how landlords responded to the recommendations made almost sixteen months ago and reflecting the renewed focus on damp and mould after the inquest into the death of Awaab Ishak.

It comes as we recorded a 77% increase (3,530) in the enquiries and complaints on damp, mould and leaks from 2020-21 to 2021-22. So far this year there have been 3,969 enquiries and complaints.

Building on the Spotlight report, which has been downloaded over 5,000 times since publication, we have identified ten key tests for governing bodies to evaluate its organisation’s response to damp and mould, and highlighted areas that need continued focus: legal proceedings, fairness, good governance and continued learning.

The tests in this report should be used to help respond to the 26 in the original Spotlight report. The sector should use this as a framework for conducting a self-assessment and creating an action plan.

Analysing the response from various landlords from across the country we found that, following the Spotlight report, 35% of them now have a specific damp and mould policy with streamlined processes for identifying and responding to damp and mould reports. A further 12% said they were in the process of implementing one.

There was also plenty of good practice detailed, including installing sensors, carrying out property MOTs, and undertaking root cause analysis modelling and staff training.

However, there were still areas of concern. Some landlords had removed words such as ‘lifestyle’ from their policies but replaced them with euphemisms such as ‘internal environmental factors’.

And while landlords should use the complaints procedure until legal proceedings have been issued, there continues to be misinterpretation and a lack of clarity around what is meant by legal proceedings.

Some complaints policies exclude matters subject to legal proceedings but are not clear that this does not cover the pre-action protocol. Other policies incorrectly state that legal proceedings means instructing a solicitor and/or issuing a letter before claim.

Read the report

Open letter to member landlords on damp and mould – November 2022

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “The inquest into the death of Awaab Ishak has focused the minds of the sector. But we are continually finding in our casework that landlords have not responded to this issue with sufficient urgency.

“I welcome the work that many landlords are doing to strengthen their approach following the coroner’s report.  Our Spotlight report and this evaluation are invaluable tools to support that.

“Landlords need to have a sustained focus on culture and behaviours to ensure issues are not dismissed. The human impact and consequence of the creeping normalisation of poor culture was highlighted by the death of Awaab Ishak.

“It is disappointing when we conducted our review how few landlords had acted to implement a dedicated damp and mould policy, despite there being a clear and driving need to have a bespoke response for these reports given the shortcomings identified in our casework.

“The ‘golden thread’ running throughout the Spotlight report recommendations was good governance and continued learning, as it affects both policy and process, as well as front-line delivery.

“I would encourage governing bodies to consider our ten ‘key tests’ when reviewing plans, and for landlords where this is not happening, for them to create an action plan to support a proactive response.

“I know this is now a priority for many landlords, but I would urge senior leaders to go faster and further in their efforts to do what is right by their residents.”

The 10 tests are as follows:

  • Find your silence – who’s not using your complaints system and why? Some landlords see high complaints as a bad thing. But high complaints about damp and mould can be a sign that you are open and transparent, and people feel they can complain
  • Proactive communications strategy – Damp and mould cases are out there, and you need to engage with that. Our call for evidence highlighted that landlords are often doing quite a lot in this space and their residents have no idea. Don’t patronise, don’t be obscure and make sure you use everyday terms – the advice needs to be helpful and understandable
  • Treat residents fairly – It isn’t their fault they are in a home unsuitable for living or currently in a property that is marked for regeneration/demolition
  • Improve record keeping – How can you adopt an intelligence-based front foot if you have no data on what you’re dealing with? How can you ensure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing if nothing is recorded? We’ll soon be releasing a Spotlight report on this issue for you to engage with
  • Know your residents – Occupancy factors may include overcrowding and the availability and use of heating and ventilation systems. They also include individual circumstances such as disability, financial hardship, and health conditions
  • Check net zero plans – Electric heating costs more than gas. If you’re net zero strategy is pushing people into hardship, need to make sure you’re making mitigations
  • Know your homes – Structural factors include property age, design, and modifications. For example, certain types of properties such as converted street properties, buildings of concrete construction or traditional solid type construction are more susceptible to damp and mould than others
  • Dedicated damp and mould strategy – Create one by looking wider than the individual cases. Use your void periods and mutual exchanges too
  • Empower staff – if they’re in a property for something else, help them clock the signs. We encourage landlords to consider the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Professional Standards if they have not already done so
  • Use the complaints system to learn – Be robust in using the complaints process until such time as proceedings are filed.

Following the release of this guidance, we will be running a webinar on 14 March at 12pm. We’ll share both good practice and where we’re still seeing landlords go wrong on damp and mould.