The Housing Ombudsman has released its latest Spotlight report, Relationship of Equals, calling for a Royal Commission to create a long-term plan for social housing after finding that current approaches for the sector are not working for residents with a vulnerability.
The Spotlight report, focusing on attitudes, respect and rights, assesses what it means to be vulnerable in social housing in 2024, what “vulnerable” means and how social landlords can better respond to the needs of those residents.
The Ombudsman acknowledges that the term “vulnerable” is imperfect and has sought to define and understand better what it means throughout the report. This includes that some vulnerabilities may be short-term and include areas like grief and financial distress. The report makes the case that there is a need for human-centric provision of services, and an individual approach to a range of delivery methods.
The report also calls for a statutory definition of vulnerability and a renewed definition of general needs, alongside a duty to cooperate between agencies such as health bodies and social landlords.
The findings are made up of more than 1,663 public responses from a call for evidence and hundreds of Ombudsman cases, including almost 200 where staff conduct formed part of the investigation. The report uses these case studies and direct quotes from residents and landlords to build a picture of how the sector is performing.
Recommendations for the sector
Among the recommendations for the sector, the Ombudsman has said landlords should:
- implement a vulnerability strategy, including how it is defined, who assesses, and what the review process is. This must be in line with The Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the Care Act
- test the policy in practice against the 3Rs – recognise, respond and appropriately record vulnerabilities
- implement a specific reasonable adjustments policy
- carry out a “Resident of the Future” forecast for the next ten years, drawing upon the available information around demographics, both locally and nationally
- introduce minimum staff training requirements such as Dementia Friends, and training on customer care, mental health, learning disabilities, and sight and hearing loss
- undertake a review at Board level as to whether the organisation is currently offering a ‘human-centric’ service provision and identify the barriers to why it is not currently the case
- ensure awareness and accessibility to the complaints procedure
Call for evidence data
In its call for evidence, the Ombudsman asked residents about how well informed they felt their landlord kept them on repairs, rents and service charges, complaints and policies.
Most residents rated their landlord between 3 and 5 when keeping them informed about changes to rent and service charges. However, for everything else, more than half of residents rated their landlord at 1 – this led to one resident describing feeling like a “powerless cash cow”.
68% said their landlord had not made any reasonable adjustments, despite being asked to.
Landlords responding to the call for evidence reported that a lack of resources and a breakdown of trust were the two main barriers to better communication. However, landlord respondents also said the internal culture and attitude of their organisations hampered communication with residents.
People and processes
From the Ombudsman’s casework, the issues seen around communications and relationships can be broken down into 2 main areas: people and processes.
People in this context means the attitudes, belief systems, tone and approach of staff, with processes referring to the external and internal frameworks the landlord must comply with. For example, the report found an inadequate understanding amongst some landlords of their obligations under the Equality, Human Rights and Care Acts, as well as the interplay of this statute with the Landlord and Tenant Act and statutory hazards.
Case studies in the report
All of the case studies in the report contain learning for landlords, including maladministration cases as well as no maladministration. Amongst the cases are failures to make adjustments on adaptations, communications and appointments, whilst the report also features a case in which a landlord acted reasonably in seeking to explain its position and provide a response to a resident about service charges, rather than just deflecting straight to the tribunal.
Other cases include:
- insensitive comments to a mother about her terminally ill daughter
- a domestic abuse survivor being advised by the landlord to return to her property
- a resident’s mental health blamed for the landlord missing repair appointments despite it being aware the resident would be at a health clinic
- a resident being told to be ‘nicer’ if she wanted better treatment by contractors
- a landlord telling a resident it was ‘surprised and disappointed’ she had raised a complaint
The report also includes several areas of good practice by landlords. Some social landlords have restructured their housing departments to better meet the needs of their residents. Where previously the landlords’ housing and adult social care were separate directorates, they have now combined the two.
One landlord has created new teams consisting of complaint staff, contractors and housing officers. Each working together to understand the situation, the impact of the situation on the residents and the support they need.
The Ombudsman has itself taken learning from this report, revising its Reasonable Adjustments policy, implementing a new Safeguarding policy and introducing new guidance for Equality and Human Rights to support formal investigations.
Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “The effect of a combined cost of living and housing crisis has put parts of the sector at breaking point, compounded by a narrow vision of what social housing is for; one which is far removed from its conception 150 years ago.
“This presents choices for government and society, as well as landlords and residents, about what sort of social housing the country wants.
“This sector has a proud history of tackling social injustice and this housing crisis speaks to new social injustices in health, equality and race and it can rise to this challenge for the benefit of the country. Our calls for a Royal Commission, which is independent of government and not impeded by politics, could be transformative.
“Central to our report is what it means to be vulnerable in social housing today, how landlords can respond effectively, and how to do so without stigma or marginalisation.
“Too often in our casework, residents’ vulnerabilities are missed or the response is inappropriate. Too often the concept of vulnerability is ill-defined by the landlord. Disrepair in homes or poorly handled anti-social behaviour in neighbourhoods is creating – or exacerbating – vulnerabilities.
“Procedures that should adapt lack agility. Staff are not empowered to deliver the right outcome or insufficiently trained to follow the right process.
“These events can serve to exacerbate the imbalance of power that exists between the resident and landlord, which an Ombudsman is designed to redress.
“I’d urge all social landlords to read this report and reflect how their services and policies can be adapted to bring about positive changes for all residents. We acknowledge that in some places the sector needs more help with this too and have made recommendations to that effect for policymakers.”
Further learning for landlords
The Ombudsman is hosting a special webinar looking at this report and its recommendations on 26 February 2024.