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A2Dominion Housing Group Limited (202016827)

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REPORT

COMPLAINT 202016827

A2Dominion Housing Group Limited

28 April 2022


Our approach

The Housing Ombudsman’s approach to investigating and determining complaints is to decide what is fair in all the circumstances of the case. This is set out in the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Ombudsman Scheme (the Scheme). The Ombudsman considers the evidence and looks to see if there has been any ‘maladministration’, for example whether the landlord has failed to keep to the law, followed proper procedure, followed good practice or behaved in a reasonable and competent manner.

Both the resident and the landlord have submitted information to the Ombudsman and this has been carefully considered. Their accounts of what has happened are summarised below. This report is not an exhaustive description of all the events that have occurred in relation to this case, but an outline of the key issues as a background to the investigation’s findings.

The complaint

  1. The resident has complained about:
    1. the landlord’s handling of repairs to the heating and hot water.
    2. the compensation awarded specifically for a lack of heating and hot water for the period 5 August 2021 to 16 September 2021.

Jurisdiction

  1. What we can and cannot consider is called the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. This is governed by the Housing Ombudsman Scheme. When a complaint is brought to the Ombudsman, we must consider all the circumstances of the case as there are sometimes reasons why a complaint will not be investigated.
  2. Paragraph 39(a) of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme states that “The Ombudsman will not investigate complaints which, in the Ombudsman’s opinion are made prior to having exhausted a member’s complaints procedure, unless there is evidence of a complaint handling failure and the Ombudsman is satisfied that the member has not taken action within a reasonable timescale”.
  3. The heating and hot water supply for the whole block was terminated on 5 August 2021, and residents were asked to use the back-up immersion heater whilst the managing agent and the landlord investigated leaks within the building and problems with the hot water supply. On 17 September 2021, the resident was notified that the heating and hot water was restored.  On 22 December 2021 the resident declined an offer from the landlord of £136 for lack of heating and hot water for the period 5 August to 16 September 2021 (£2 per day + £50 goodwill).  This was a general offer, made to all residents for a defined outage that affected them equally, which was separate to the issues considered within the resident’s complaint.
  4. In accordance with paragraph 39(a) of the Scheme the Ombudsman will not investigate a complaint that has not exhausted a landlord’s complaints procedure. Generally, a landlord should have the opportunity to respond to a complaint before this Service can assess its handling of the matter complained about.  Therefore, in accordance with paragraph 39(a), and after careful consideration of all the evidence, the resident’s complaint about the compensation awarded specifically for a lack of heating and hot water for the period 5 August 2021 to 16 September 2021 (Complaint 2) is outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to investigate.

Scope of Investigation

  1. In her correspondence with the landlord and this Service, the resident mentioned problems with her heating and hot water over 5-6 years. This has not been disputed by the landlord. However, there is no evidence of a formal complaint being made until November 2020. The Ombudsman encourages residents to raise complaints with their landlords in a timely manner, so that the landlord has a reasonable opportunity to consider the issues whilst they are still ‘live’, and whilst the evidence is available to reach an informed conclusion on the events which occurred. As the substantive issues become historic it is increasingly difficult for either the landlord, or an independent body such as the Ombudsman, to conduct an effective review of the actions taken to address those issues.
  2. This is in accordance with paragraph 39(e) of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, which states that the Ombudsman will not consider complaints which were not raised with the landlord as a formal complaint within a reasonable time, which would normally be within six months of the matter arising. In view of the time periods involved in this case, taking into account the availability and reliability of evidence, this assessment does not consider specific events prior to 2020 and is focused on the landlord’s actions in responding to the more recent events leading to the complaint of November 2020 and events contemporaneous to that complaint. However, the fact that there have been issues with the resident’s heating and hot water supply prior to 2020 provides the background context to the resident’s complaint, and has been considered by this Service in this regard.

Background and summary of events

Policies and Procedures

  1. The landlord’s Repairs Policy confirms that it has two repair priorities:
    1. Urgent – Within 24 hours (not appointed).
    2. Standard – Next available appointment that is convenient with the customer.
  2. The landlord has not provided a copy of the resident’s signed tenancy agreement. However, the sample agreement provided confirms its statutory responsibility to:              keep in good repair and working order any installation provided by the Association for space heating, water heating and sanitation…, including
    1. Water heaters… and central heating installations”. 
  3. The landlord has a two stage complaints procedure:
    1. Stage 1 (The investigation and focus on resolution).
    2. Stage 2 (Independent Internal Review).
  4. The landlord’s Compensation Policy provides for discretionary compensation for service failure:
    1. Where there is “Detriment incl stress/inconvenience”, the landlord can make payments of:
      1. £50 Low.
      2. £75 Medium – “these mistakes usually take longer to resolve, but can usually be fixed”. It might have involved a number of errors being made.  For example a repair that is repeatedly not resolved”.
      3. £100 High – “This is usually a difficult error to put right…An example of this is where we have failed to deal with a repair, the impact of which has affected a customer’s health and safety”. 
    2. Regarding length of time (time and trouble), the landlord can make payments of:
      1. £25, £50, £75 Low [1-3 months].
      1. “85, 95, £110 Medium [4-6 months] – “the customer may have had to chase up several times to get an issue resolved.
      2. £150 High [6+ months] – “this is a delay which no one should be expected to tolerate. This will usually involve the customer having to chase several departments, or in cases where they haven’t chased, had to wait for months (6 months +) for their issue to be resolved.

Summary of Events

  1. The resident is a tenant of the landlord, and her property is a flat. The property is supplied heat from a decentralised/district heating system and has a Heating Interface Unit (HIU) and an immersion heater. The landlord has advised that the site has a managing agent, appointed by the freeholder, which is responsible for maintaining and operating the central boiler plant room. The landlord is responsible for the heating and hot water supply at individual properties.
  2. The resident has advised this Service that she has received inadequate heating and hot water for several years. She states in October 2018 the landlord’s heating contractor advised her that she needed a new boiler. She has provided evidence that in December 2018/ January 2019 she reported leaks in a communal cupboard outside her property which were diagnosed as being on the heating network and which fell under the freeholder to repair.
  3. On 17 November 2020, the resident raised a formal complaint stating that since she moved into her property over four years ago, when her radiators were working and providing heat, or if she washed her dishes in the morning, her hot water supply was limited and insufficient. She added that when the hot water issue was repaired, then her heating was detrimentally affected with some radiators not working. 
  4. The resident stated that she had logged the repair again on 13 November 2020 with the landlord which advised her to raise the issue with the managing agent. However, the managing agent’s contractor referred the matter back to the landlord. She requested that the landlord investigate and resolve the matter.
  5. On 19 November 2020, the resident asked the landlord to carry out necessary repairs pending the complaint response, and on 23 November 2020 she advised that the repair was still uncompleted. The landlord’s internal correspondence states that “The Managing Agent is who are unaware of their responsibilities. Negotiations are currently in progress in regard to service charge costs for servicing and in hours call outs to HIU’s. They do not provide an OOH (Out of Hours) service”, and that the landlord’s own heating contractor was to attend on 30 November 2020.  The internal correspondence also notes that services were fully restored when it was diagnosed that “the HIU bypass valve had been opened therefore not allowing hot water to enter the plate heat exchangers”.
  6. On 11 December 2020 the landlord sent a Stage 1 response to the complaint. It noted that there were on-going issues with the HIU bypass valve being opened, therefore not allowing hot water to enter the plate heat exchange, and apologised for this.  It noted that it was still considering responsibility for the communal heating system with the managing agent; however, given that the managing agents did not have the Out of Hours services and refused to carry out the repairs, the landlord had taken over temporary responsibility to deal with urgent repairs as well as oversee HIU’s whilst responsibility was still under consideration.
  7. The landlord noted that on 30 November 2020 its contractor attended and rectified the issue, as confirmed by the contract manager, therefore the resident should have sufficient heating and hot water. It apologised for the shortcomings in the information previously provided and the confusion caused. It offered compensation of £150 comprising £100 for time and trouble as well as distress and inconvenience and £50 for lack of communication and clarity on repair issues.
  8. The landlord advised that as a result of the complaint, it had provided further staff training on record-keeping and staff had been reminded of the importance of maintaining clear, accurate and up to date records. It had also spoken to its contractor about the lack of communication and updates and reinforced the service levels that it expected from them and the obligation it had to provide a good service to residents. In addition to this, the landlord stated its Mechanical and Electrical team would ensure that concise agreements will be drawn up with managing agents defining all parties’ responsibilities.
  9. The resident has advised this Service that she was decanted after Christmas 2020 due to structural works to the building and when she returned to her property on 31 March 2021, there was no heating and hot water.  On 1 April 2021 the resident asked the landlord to escalate the complaint as her heating and hot water supply issues were not resolved as she had to log the same repair the previous day. On 2 April 2021 the contractor reported that the programmer had been turned off and the flat was empty for three months, so the tank needed time to get to temperature.
  10. On 6 April 2021 the resident confirmed that she wished to escalate the complaint as she had reported a loss of heating and hot water on 31 March 2021, and no-one came out within 24 hours. The contractor attended on 2 April 2021, but she had to subsequently raise further jobs as the water pressure was low, then the hot water stopped again and the radiators did not get hot.  The resident reiterated her concerns that she had experienced the same issue for five years and requested that the landlord install a new boiler / heating and hot water system.
  11. On 10 May 2021, the landlord sent the Stage 2 response to the complaint and advised that it made the following findings:
    1. It had multiple contractors in place that had responsibility for different elements of the resident’s heating and hot water systems. The communication between teams had not been clear and this had delayed repairs. It had also requested the resident to contact different contractors directly.
    2. The heating contractor attended the resident’s property on 8 April 2021 and restored all services excluding a radiator in the living room. A replacement radiator was ordered but had not yet been installed.
    3. It noted that the resident had on-going issues specifically with the supply of hot water/water pressure and the colour of hot water provided. There also appeared to be issues that impacted her property when any changes were made to the central boiler plant operated by the managing agent.
    4. In order to close out all of the resident’s issues it had instructed the heating contractor to fully survey all elements of her heating and hot water systems and to provide an impartial assessment. The contractor would carry out any repairs it could during this survey and would make a recommendation for any it could not for the landlord to review / approve and arrange.
    5. The landlord provided the details of the resident’s two named points of contacts going forward and offered compensation of £210 comprising £85 for length of time, £75 for the inconvenience caused and £50 for lack of communication.

After the complaints procedure

  1. On 13 May 2021, the resident declined the landlord’s compensation offer of £210 noting:
    1. the duration, impact and inconvenience of the ongoing issue.
    2. the time spend chasing up logged and cancelled jobs due to not securing a contract with its heating contractor. At one point she waited over a week with no heating or hot water.
    3. the expense of keeping the heating on all the time.
    4. the fact that a new boiler was not installed as advised by the heating contractor.  
  2. On 14 July 2021, the landlord confirmed the Stage 2 compensation offer but stated that the points of contact should provide an update on the actions and remedies to resolve the outstanding heating and hot water issues.  The resident has stated that the points of contact subsequently phoned her and arranged an appointment, at which problems with the HIU system were again identified. She further states some repairs were carried out, but some radiators remained not working. She has stated there was no further contact with the points of contact. The landlord has provided no evidence of further contact between the points of contact and the resident, or of inspections made by the points of contact following on from the resident’s complaint.
  3. The landlord has advised this Service that it has not received a satisfactory survey report from its contractor, as promised in the Stage 2 response.  The contractor has attended further repair requests, though.  On 26 May 2021, there was no hot water in the resident’s flat due to a faulty 2-port motorised valve which was replaced at the visit. After the heating and hot water supply was turned off for investigations on 7 and 8 August 2021, the resident reported an emergency repair that she was not getting hot water from the immersion heater. The landlord’s repair records state that there was no hot water as the immersion thermostat cut switch was activated, so the contractor reset the thermostat. However, in an email sent to her landlord on 10 August 2021 the resident stated that she had been without heating for two days and that the immersion still did not provide sufficient hot water. 
  4. The resident has advised this Service that she continued to have problems with her heating and hot water supply due to blockages in the system.  The landlord’s repair records show that on 10 December 2021, it attended the resident’s property and ascertained that the primary strainer was blocked causing poor water quality (brown and muddy).  The records state that once the strainer was cleared it restored the heating/hot water. However, the resident stated in her email of 22 December 2021 that her heating and hot water was only fully restored following a HIU service on 17 December 2021 where poor wiring and broken components of the boiler were identified. The landlord has not provided any record of a HIU service.
  5. On 14 January 2022 the resident advised this Service that her complaint was unresolved as she first raised issues with her heating and hot water in 2016 and the repair was still unresolved.  She stated that the landlord did not take accountability for the issues when they were raised and referred to the physical and mental impact on her and her family’s health.
  6. The resident has advised this Service that the blockages in her property were not resolved until 9 March 2022. On 11 March 2022 the resident reported that a contractor restored her heaters the previous day, but now her hot water had stopped again.

Assessment and findings

  1. The resident’s property is served by a district heating system with the freeholder responsible for the central plant room. Nonetheless, the landlord in line with the tenancy agreement is responsible for the heating and hot water supply at the resident’s property.  It therefore had a responsibility to ensure that the resident had sufficient hot water and heating, working with the managing agent as necessary, and carrying out works that fell under its remit.
  2. In this case, the resident complained in November 2020 that her property had insufficient heating and hot water for her needs, and that she did not have adequate hot water and heating at the same time. At the time she had raised a repair on 13 November 2020 and noted that the managing agent had referred her back to the landlord.  The landlord’s internal complaint correspondence noted that the managing agent was unaware of its responsibilities and did not provide an Out of Hours Service and that negotiations were ongoing supports this. This indicates that there was no clear arrangement for resolution of heating and hot water issues. It follows that there were significant failings in the overall management of the scheme as it is vital for landlords to have proper agreements in place with the managing agent and/or freeholder, with clarity around roles and responsibilities. Moreover, without a full and established Out of Hours Service being provided by the managing agent, there is a risk of emergency repairs not being completed within timescales and therefore increased inconvenience to residents.
  3. With regards to the repair reported at this time, the landlord did not attend until 30 November 2020, and it transpired that the contractor was able to carry out a repair without collaboration with the freeholder.   Ultimately, the repair was not completed in a reasonable length of time as the required works were not carried out until after two weeks from the resident’s repair request, and this length of time was longer than necessary in part by the landlord not diagnosing the repair at the earliest possibility and passing responsibility to the freeholder.
  4. A further repair request made on 31 March 2021 – of loss of heating and hot water – prompted the resident to escalate her complaint.  With regards to the repair, the landlord did not respond with 24 hours therefore not meeting the timeframe for Urgent Repairs, as it did not attend until 2 April 2021. The parties do not dispute that repeat visits were required and that that the repair was not completed until 8 July 2021, over a week later. There was therefore another delay in carrying out this repair.
  5. The landlord also accepted, when responding to the resident’s complaint that whilst a repair had been carried out, there were ongoing issues with the resident’s supply of heating and hot water/water pressure, and also the colour of her hot water. It arranged for a survey by its contractor and named two points of contact so as to close out all the issues. The proposed action was appropriate because, as stated in paragraph 5.1 of the Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code, “Effective dispute resolution requires a process designed to resolve complaints. Where something has gone wrong a landlord should acknowledge this and set out the actions it … intends to take, to put things right”.  However, by the same token, the landlord had a responsibility to ensure that the actions were completed as well as any other actions identified to resolve the resident’s heating and hot water problems. 
  6. There is no evidence that the landlord through the named points of contact or otherwise maintained contact with and updated the resident, even though she reported further repairs and investigations were carried out to the building’s systems as a whole. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the landlord’s contractor carried out a survey, and indeed the landlord has advised this Service that it has not received a satisfactory survey. The Ombudsman’s Spotlight report on Management Agents states that plans should be proactively and effectively communicated to the resident so that they can understand the path to resolution and can support the landlord with monitoring performance.  There is no evidence that the landlord acted in this manner, despite its commitment to carrying out a survey and naming points of contact providing a framework for this. This was particularly unreasonable given that it had accepted in its complaint responses there had already been shortcomings in its communication with the resident.
  7. Aside from its (unfulfilled) commitment that its contractor carry out a survey, it was also important that the landlord work with the managing agent, not least because it set out in the Stage 2 response that changes to the boiler plant impacted the resident’s property. The Ombudsman generally expects landlords to demonstrate that they have taken reasonable steps to engage with the managing agent or, if they are unresponsive, the freeholder.  However, there is no evidence that the landlord has sought to obtain copies of, or other clear information on, technical assessments, decisions, and future plans from the managing agent. Nor is there evidence that the landlord with the managing agent has sought to determine the physical boundary between the communal system and the system within the property, and whether there are any shared responsibilities and interdependencies. The lack of evidence further confirms that the landlord has not taken the necessary action to find an ultimate resolution to the resident’s substantive concerns about her heating and hot water supply despite committing to do so in the Stage 2 response.
  8. When responding to the resident’s complaint, the landlord sought to provide redress by offering compensation. It ultimately offered £210, breaking down the award for clarity. Its awards for length of time and inconvenience accorded with the medium award under its Compensation Policy and it also made an additional award for communication.  However, the resident in her formal complaint stated that she had been experiencing problems with her heating and hot water for several years prior.  Whilst from the information provided by the parties, this Service cannot confirm exactly what reports were made to the landlord and when, it is noted that the landlord did not dispute that the resident had experienced problems with her heating and hot water for some time prior to her complaint.  It also accepted that the issues were still not diagnosed and resolved in their entirety at the time it responded to the Stage 2 complaintTherefore, it was unreasonable that the landlord did not award the high rate of compensation which would have more appropriately reflected the circumstances of the case.
  9. Furthermore, the landlord did not offer compensation for the failures of its handling of the two repair requests that prompted the resident’s Stage 1 and Stage 2 complaints.   The landlord has also not offered redress for not taking the action it committed to in its Stage 2 response, specifically to carry out a survey of the heating system and maintain contact with the resident until resolution of all the issues.  Therefore, whilst the landlord has sought to resolve the complaint by offering compensation, taken altogether, it has not made an offer that is proportionate to the circumstances.

Determination (decision)

  1. In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was severe maladministration by the landlord in its handling of repairs to the heating and hot water.

Reasons

  1. There was no clear arrangement for resolution of heating and hot water issues at the resident’s block between the landlord and the managing agent/freeholder, with clarity around roles and responsibilities. With regards to the resident’s situation, it is not disputed that there had been ongoing issues with the resident’s supply of hot water/water pressure.
  2. The landlord has not taken the action outlined in its Stage 2 response to resolve the resident’s complaint. In particular, its contractor has not carried out a survey and its named points of contacts have not liaised with the resident until resolution of all issues.  It was also unreasonable that the landlord did not work with the managing agent to resolve the heating and hot water issues experienced by the resident, not least because it postulated in the Stage 2 response that changes to the boiler plant impacted the resident’s property.
  3. There were delays by the landlord in completing repairs to the matters complained about by the resident, which were reported on 13 November 2020 and 31 March 2021.
  4. Whilst the landlord offered compensation, its award was not proportionate to all the circumstances of the case.

Orders and recommendations

  1. Within the next four weeks, the landlord should pay the resident a total of £750 compensation, broken down as follows:
    1. £300 in respect of the distress and inconvenience and time and trouble experienced by the resident due to periods of insufficient hot water and/or heating prior to the Stage 2 response.
    2. £150 to be paid in respect of the distress and inconvenience experienced by the resident from the landlord’s failure to provide the outcome of the survey in relation to the resident’s heating and hot water system to ultimately bring the resident’s concerns to a close. 
    3. £200 in respect of the failures in its communication with the resident both prior to the Stage 2 response and then in maintaining contact with the resident whilst seeking to resolve the substantive heating and hot water issues.
    4. £100 for the delays in completing repairs following the reports of 13 November 2020 and 31 March 2021.
  2. Within the next four weeks, the landlord should send a further apology to the resident.
  3. Within the next six weeks, the landlord should:
    1. Arrange an inspection of the resident’s heating and hot water system, identifying any parts of the system that repair, servicing or replacement.  The landlord should also liaise with the freeholder about the plant room and other issues such as leaks in the building and seek to establish how the resident’s heating and hot water supply may be affected by the issues. The outcome of this, as well as timescales for any works or inspections identified, should be communicated to the resident in writing within two weeks of the inspection and copied to the Ombudsman.
    2. Provide the resident with a document setting out the responsibilities of all relevant parties (landlord, managing agent and freeholder) in respect of heating and hot water issues. This should reflect its agreement with the managing agent, which will define these responsibilities. A copy of this document should also be provided to the Ombudsman.
    3. Provide the resident with a document setting out the details of the responsibilities of its contractors and internal teams in respect of heating and hot water issues.  Contact details should also be provided to the resident as necessary. A copy of this document should also be provided to the Ombudsman.