Ombudsman calls for culture change after Clarion left disabled resident without the use of a toilet because of continued drain blockages

21 February 2023

The Ombudsman found severe maladministration for how Clarion responded to blocked drains in a new build property, which left residents living in ‘unsanitary conditions’ and without a working downstairs toilet for considerable periods.

We found severe maladministration for Clarion after repeated drain blockages caused a disabled resident unable to use a functioning toilet in their new build home. Twenty-one months after the issue was first reported, the resident reported to the Ombudsman that intermittent issues remained.

The case follows our special report six months ago which made several recommendations for the landlord to address repeated areas of service failure. Following this latest case, we have expressed concern at the landlord’s culture around learning from complaints.

This includes the need for learning not be to lost because of the scale of the landlord’s operations.

Months after initial reports of blocked drains “backing up” were not dealt with by the landlord, the Kent residents employed their own contractor to fix the issue. The contactor advised that if the issue was to arise again, a CCTV survey would be needed. The residents informed the landlord of this, and the landlord reimbursed the residents for the works.

However, over the coming months the residents reported that the toilet was “backing up, not flushing properly and was unusable”.

The landlord subsequently spoke to the developer about the problem to get them to fix it. The developer blamed the residents for flushing wipes and excessive toilet roll and wrote to residents reminding them of what they can safely flush. The residents refute the claim they ever flushed wipes down the toilet.

After more complaints about the drains, the developer once again said wipes being flushed were the cause. The residents reported that they were “desperate” at this point with their drain severely blocked and waste ‘spitting’ from a downstairs bathroom sink.

The residents arranged their own drainage contractor to carry out a CCTV survey and a further inspection. This found multiple issues with the structure of the drains and their installation, as well as no evidence of wipes being the cause of any blockages.

The landlord forwarded this evidence to the developer and arranged for reimbursement of contractor costs. The developer attended to fix the issues raised by the contractor but the residents report that not all the actions in the report were taken. This left the issue ongoing.

Once again at their own cost, the residents bought the necessary materials to complete the actions set out in the contractors report and paid for installation.

The landlord did not acknowledge the frequency of blockages or the distress and inconvenience caused by the issue and the impact on the disabled resident’s ability to use the toilet.

The response gave the developer’s photographs and a stated ‘survey’ unreasonable weight for wet wipes being the cause of blockages, therefore it was not reasonable that the landlord considered the evidence to be sufficient for its complaint response and that no further action was necessary.

There was also no evidence the landlord effectively monitored the works, and it took action from the Ombudsman for the survey to be carried out. We recognise that where a third party is involved, matters may be out of the landlord’s hands to some extent, however its overall limited role in matters was not satisfactory.

The landlord was not mindful of its interest in the property and responsibility to the residents.

We ordered the landlord to apologise and pay the residents £2,455 in compensation, to undertake an independent survey of the drains and provide options, solutions and timescales for the residents. The landlord was also ordered to carry out a review of current processes in respect to reports of issues and defects at its new build properties, to identify any areas for learning and service improvement.

In response to the case, the landlord has said it has given staff training on tracking and prioritising cases where there is a vulnerability.

Read the report

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “In this case, the landlord has not reasonably met its commitments and ensured there has been an appropriate response, or acknowledged the impact of the issue and its handling on the residents.

“The vulnerability of one resident and impact on them should have acted as a prompt to ensure there was sufficient focus on the issues.

“I am especially concerned that in this case and others, residents who are presenting vulnerabilities, which should change the response, are not always being heard.

“I recognise the landlord has engaged extensively with the Ombudsman over the issues arising from its complaints and has made several changes to improve its services following our investigations.

“I appreciate the humility shown in response to the findings in this case from the landlord and hope it encourages them to think about the way it talks about learning from complaints moving forwards.

“The special report published emphasised the importance of culture and leadership around complaints to drive improvement. This must be central to embedding change. Regardless of the number of homes a landlord has, it must recognise that they’ve thought about how to rectify issues for residents.

“In the scale of its operations, it is important the landlord does not lose sight of the individual impact of cases and the people behind those complaints. Nor should this scale be leveraged to diminish the impact of mistakes that, without the intervention of the Ombudsman, would have left the resident without appropriate redress.

“Crucially, it needs to demonstrate empathy for the experience of its residents and double down on its efforts to show complaints are genuinely used as a learning tool, not just a transaction.”

Spotlight report on leasehold, shared ownership and new builds: complexity and complaint handling

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

Clarion learning statement

“We are sorry that the family have had to endure drainage problems for a sustained period of time, fully accept the verdict of the ombudsman and apologise for the service we provided.

The home owners deserved better and we are making changes in our organisation to guard against similar issues arising in the future. As a result of a review of this case, we have provided enhanced training to our colleagues on how to manage, track and prioritise cases where there is a person with vulnerabilities in the household, and also on the management of drainage blockage issues.

We have also since invested significantly in a system to help us improve how we identify and manage repeat issues, including an automated element to reduce the risk of anything being missed.

It is worth noting that the problems in this case first surfaced during a serious phase of the pandemic in late 2020. The country was in and out of national lockdowns during this time and our services were impacted. This does not excuse our performance, but we have undergone a lot of change as an organisation since that time.

We are committed to acting on the recommendations of the ombudsman and have updated our internal guidance and customer communications to offer clearer advice. We will be formally updating our defects policy to reflect this too.