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Ombudsman calls for ‘radical improvements’ following five severe maladministration findings for Lambeth Council

14 February 2023

The Housing Ombudsman has published three separate cases involving Lambeth Council, making five severe maladministration findings after multiple failings on issues such as record keeping and complaint handling.

We have made five severe maladministration findings for Lambeth Council including in cases where a household with a vulnerable child was left without a vital repair and a resident was without heating and hot water during winter months.

We have called for the landlord to ‘radically improve’ and expressed concern for how its actions were at times disrespectful of residents and lacked empathy for the impact of its service failures.

The five severe maladministration findings are across three cases and come a year after the publication of our special report into the landlord, which called for action on a myriad of issues. These cases are additional to the ones in the report.

We have since held constructive meetings with senior leadership about embedding change and these cases will form part of that learning.

In one case (Case A), we found severe maladministration for the landlord’s response to the damp and mould, its subsequent complaint handling and its record keeping.

The resident, who had a child with a damp and mould allergy, reported mould had formed after a leak in the bathroom. The landlord repeatedly failed to carry out the necessary repairs works, which started from a leasehold property above, and the resident reported her child’s skin cracking and bleeding due to an eczema flare up caused by the issue.

In the second case (Case B), we found severe maladministration for how the landlord dealt with adaptations works, including the quality of works and the conduct of its contractors.

Nearly a year after an Occupational Therapist carried out a survey to set out how to make the ground floor into an appropriate living space, works started but the contractors left the resident for three weeks without a functioning bath or shower, a bucket of water was needed to flush away any waste, and there were no taps on the basins in the bathroom.

The landlord did not have a policy in relation to adaptations. While the Ombudsman recognised that some disruption may be inevitable due to the Covid-19 lockdown, there is an expectation that the landlord would use its reasonable endeavours to minimise this.  The Ombudsman ordered for the Chief Executive of the council to personally apologise to the resident and for an action plan to be undertaken for service delivery of adaptations.

In the third case (Case C), there were two findings of severe maladministration, for boiler repairs and record keeping.

A boiler repair should have happened under the landlord’s policy within seven days but was not seen to for months, and included several missed appointments as well as visits being made without the resident being aware.

When an operative did arrive and complete some of the repair, it took the boiler fuse and left the resident without heating and hot water for a significant period during winter months. It is also not clear when the repair was made, due to conflicting accounts and a lack of records. The resident has rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, with the lack of heating and hot water exacerbating the pain they experienced because of these conditions.

In response to our decisions, learning identified by the landlord includes carrying out extensive surveying of its homes, sponsoring a Disrepair Arbitration Scheme to help residents get issues sorted fairly, and speeding up visibility of complaints with frontline teams.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “These three cases show both common points of failure and failures across several service areas, which the landlord has vowed to put right.

“The distress and inconvenience experienced by its residents was considerable, and some actions were disrespectful of residents and lacked empathy for the impact on them. It is critical for the landlord to make changes to prevent similar failings affecting other residents.

“This requires strong leadership and a corporate focus on driving change, creating a culture that does not tolerate these sorts of failures. I welcome the constructive and positive engagement of landlord’s senior leadership on these issues. I recognise it will take time to embed change and expect it to continue to use the learning from our special report and these cases to radically improve services for residents.

“I also welcome the landlord’s response on its learning from these cases and the changes being made to improve its service. I would encourage other landlords to consider the learning the cases offer for their own services.”

In Case A (ref 202118403) the work was completed six months after the original reporting of the damp and mould. During this investigation, the landlord was asked for its records relating to the leak, such as a copy of the resident’s reports, repair logs, copies of any survey or inspection reports. However, the landlord demonstrated poor record keeping as it was unable to present much of this evidence. And while it is not disputed that fixing the leak was the leaseholder’s responsibility in the first instance, it would be appropriate for the landlord to have a process in place to manage such situations. The Ombudsman ordered the landlord to pay £1,350 in compensation, as well as arranging for its chief executive to apologise to the resident on behalf of the landlord.

In Case B (ref 202105690) the contractors had not fitted the toilet to the correct specifications, or a shower screen as set out in the report. The resident reported a leak to the toilet which was leading to water leaking from the downstairs hallway ceiling. This caused the lights to trip and further distress to the resident. And while the works did get completed, it was unsatisfactory that the contractors attended, removed the bath, and not reappear for a further three weeks. They left equipment and mess in the property and damaged possessions. The Ombudsman also found maladministration for the landlord’s complaint handling as it did not demonstrate the Ombudsman’s dispute resolution principles to put things right. The Ombudsman ordered the landlord to pay £2,050 in compensation.

In Case C (ref 202124358) the resident has explained that chasing the repair caused a great deal of time and trouble, inconvenience for the multiple attendances, and frustration at the lack of communication. He was not offered any alternative heating sources either. The Ombudsman ordered the landlord to pay £950 in compensation to the landlord and found maladministration in its complaint handling.

In all cases of severe maladministration, we invite the landlord to provide a short statement on the lessons learned following the decision.

Lambeth Council learning statement:

Lambeth has been working intensively with the Housing Ombudsman over several months to resolve the issues he has raised with us. We are committed to tackling any issues raised, to ensure we provide the best possible service to all our tenants.

“By focusing on the themes and insights highlighted by the ombudsman, we ensure we are continually listening to our residents and ensuring we learn valuable lessons and improve our services as a result.

“Lambeth has more than 33,000 council homes, undertakes over 2,000 repairs each week and our priority is ensuring all of our homes are safe and well-maintained for our tenants. We have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in improving our council homes and estates in recent years, in line with the Lambeth Housing Standard (LHS). But we have also concentrated on making improvements to the day-to-day delivery of repairs and maintenance work.

“Repairs are now being carried out promptly in the vast majority of cases. However, we know that there have been some cases in 2020 where we have not provided the standard of service that our tenants expect. We apologise for all of these, and we also work hard to ensure that any issues are tackled quickly.

“In the three cases identified by the Housing Ombudsman today, we fully accept that the service we provided fell below our usual standards. We have apologised to the tenants for this and, in line with the judgement, we have paid compensation in recognition of the inconvenience and frustration these tenants have experienced. We have also resolved the original problems reported at each property.

“All of the works required in Case A have now been completed. Following the completion of the work, which related to leaks, damp and mould, The tenant has confirmed that she feels the matter is closed.  As a result of issues relating to leaks, damp and mould, we have developed a detailed disrepair action plan, through which we have:

  • Established additional contracting resources and better contract management controls;
  • Physically surveyed over 80% of our homes, to proactively identify any safety hazards and repairs. These repairs are being undertaken through a series of dedicated planned maintenance programmes;
  • Appointed additional building surveyors and undertaken dedicated training on the diagnosis and prevention of disrepair, damp and mould;
  • Sponsored a Disrepair Arbitration Scheme to provide residents with an independent, fairer and more straightforward way to resolve disrepair issues.

“We have also developed a range of initiatives to address instances of damp and mould which includes: a Damp Charter that has a series of no-blame commitments to residents, home MOTs, periodic Home Health Checks, Estate Action Days with a damp/mould focus, rapid response mould removal and treatment service.

“Lambeth Council’s chief executive has apologised to the resident in Case B over the quality of works carried out to his bathroom, and the handling of his complaint. The council has also paid compensation to this tenant, in line with the ombudsman’s judgement. To avoid similar delays going forward, we have moved the entire disabled adaption installation service into our in-house community repairs team, together with creating a new management role to give oversight of the process.  This is giving us far greater control and visibility of the disabled adaptation process and case management and resulted in a stepped reduction in the time taken to install each adaption.

“In Case C, required repairs to a defective boiler were delayed due to contractor staff shortages. We have carried out all the work required and paid the resident compensation. The contract with the company in question has since been terminated.

“We will also ensure that we learn the lessons from these cases to improve the service provided to all tenants in the future. As a result of the issues identified in these cases, we have undertaken a review of all of our contracts, which has identified and prompted wider improvements, including: additional training for staff and contractors, updates to dynamic appointment system that gives full visibility and real-time updating of repair appointments, and a dedicated housing portal that now allows residents to report their repairs online and upload photographs to aid diagnosis.

“We have also concentrated on making improvements to the day-to-day delivery of repairs and maintenance work.  This has resulted in a new resilience structure for responsive repairs being designed and implemented in April, that will:

  • Improve the real-time communication between residents, front-line housing staff and its call handling team;
  • Quicken the visibility of complaints by front-line teams to speed up resolution activity;
  • Monitor the journey of each repair and proactively instigate a solution where the journey has stalled.

“These wide-ranging changes, alongside our collaborative work with the Ombudsman, are already delivering benefits with more to come, and we are confident they will continue improving the service we provide to all our tenants.”