Ombudsman awards £10,000 to two residents following ‘inexcusable’ failures by Southwark Council

16 May 2023

The Ombudsman has made two findings of severe maladministration in two different cases for Southwark Council – one for failures in damp and mould with the other for poor complaint handling.

We have ordered almost £10,000 in compensation to two residents after making two severe maladministration findings against Southwark Council.

One case relates to the complaint handling after heating loss, with the other concerning damp and mould.

In Case A (202102902), the landlord was issued with a severe maladministration for its complaint handling after reports of heating loss during winter months by a resident who was pregnant and had a young child. We further found maladministration for the loss of heating.

The landlord’s delays in handling the complaint meant the resident was left without heating for six months in the coldest period of the year.

The landlord’s complaint responses were delayed, did not address the concerns of the resident, did not follow its own complaint policy and were issued without any apology or empathy.

Other failures included not escalating the resident’s complaint to stage two, instead creating a new stage one complaint underneath her existing complaint. It took for the Ombudsman to issue a Complaint Handling Failure Order and local MP to get involved before it was escalated.

Finally in this case, the landlord’s offer of compensation was too low and delayed.

The Ombudsman ordered the landlord to apologise to the resident and pay £2,000 in compensation.

In Case B (202113463), we found severe maladministration for how it responded to a leak and damp and mould. There was also maladministration for the landlord’s complaint handling and record keeping.

The resident and his young family were left with a worsening leak which impacted multiple rooms for 11 months, with the landlord refusing his requests for rehousing and compensation.

The damp and mould side of the complaint was not fixed for 17 months, which was particularly distressing for the resident whose children had eczema and allergies.

We had to take this timescale from resident reports as the repairs logs from the landlord were not kept. It also failed to provide any survey reports when asked by the Ombudsman.

The landlord’s lack of resolution focus was inappropriate and the unfulfilled repair orders suggest the landlord failed to avoid or minimise the identified damp and mould hazard over an inappropriate timeframe.

We ordered the landlord to pay the resident £7,541 in compensation, response to the residents’ rehousing request and carry out a full inspection on the damp and mould in the home.

The landlord has said that since the Ombudsman’s investigations it has established a dedicated damp and mould team, improved its voids process and carried out a review of its complaint handling.

One year on follow up report: Spotlight on damp and mould – it’s not lifestyle – February 2023

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “These two cases concern different services the landlord provides but, in both instances, it fell well short of how it should have responded.

“Residents deserve repairs to be fixed within correct timescales and for complaint responses to be appropriate in tone.

“It’s inexcusable for young families to live with disrepair for an extended period, especially as the landlord’s own records showed it was monitoring the issue.

“The council is a significant landlord in the capital and it is crucial for it to apply the lessons from these cases to help respond to the pressures on its services and to prevent residents experiencing avoidable detriment.

“I welcome the landlord’s response on its learning from this case and the changes made to improve its service. I would encourage other landlords to consider the learning the case offers for their own services.”

In all cases of severe maladministration, we invite the landlord to provide a learning statement.

Southwark Council learning statement

Both of these cases make for very difficult reading and we would like to apologise unreservedly for the distress caused to these families by our actions and processes.

As soon as the Ombudsman raised these with us, we made immediate changes to our processes to try to prevent such failures happening again.

These include:

  • Establishing a dedicated damp and mould team who support residents from the moment they report the issue to us to its resolution. The team work as one and remove the damp itself whilst looking for and resolving the underlying cause
  • Teams involved in our void process have worked together to tighten our procedures and improve collaborative working. We also ensure that repairs issues are resolved fully before we move a resident into a property
  • We have reviewed our approach to mutual exchanges when it comes to repairs being needed to ensure that no‘one is blocked from moving again for repairs reasons
  • A thorough review of our complaint handling, which has resulted in a training programme being designed for all complaints handling staff and a further review of how best to ensure complaints are treated with priority and lessons are learnt from them.

As the biggest social landlord in London, nothing is more important to us than ensuring our residents live in safe and comfortable homes. The challenges are enormous with growing demands and shrinking resources but we are determined to learn from every problem or challenge, and ensure we constantly improve and adapt our processes.

We thank the Ombudsman for helping and supporting us in that endeavour, and rightly calling out when things go wrong.