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Aster Group Limited (202210364)

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REPORT

COMPLAINT 202210364

Aster Group Limited

29 November 2023


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 complaint is about the landlords handling of the resident’s reports of antisocial behaviour (ASB).

Background and summary of events

Background

  1. The resident is an assured tenant of the landlord, which is a housing association. The property is a 2-bedroom semi-detached bungalow. The resident lives with her daughter, who has autism.
  2. The complaint is in relation to ASB committed by the resident’s next-door neighbour, who is elderly, and whose bungalow is attached to the side of the property. He is referred to as the neighbour in this report.
  3. Under the tenancy agreement residents must not cause nuisance, annoyance, disturbance, or intimidation to anyone else. This includes noise nuisance such as loud music, slamming doors, or shouting. The tenancy says the landlord also expects residents to try to resolve neighbourhood disputes themselves first, to use mediation if offered, and to also report ASB to other agencies such as environmental health or the police.
  4. The landlord’s ASB policy defines ASB as per the Housing Act 1996 definition as “engaging in, or threatening to engage in, conduct causing, or likely to cause, a nuisance or annoyance to persons engaged in lawful activities.” It says it will react to reports of ASB but will also try to minimise it through preventative measures and will work with other agencies. When ASB is reported the landlord will log this on its system and it will risk assess the case; priority 1 cases will be handled by its specialist ASB team. The landlord will consider use of options to deal with the ASB appropriate to the issue, which can include mediation, ASB surveys, noise recording, provision of alarms, multi-agency meetings or case review (formerly Community Trigger) or legal action. The policy says its approach will use a “proportionate and reasonable response” treating each case individually. The policy states that applying for possession to evict the perpetrator will only be considered as a last resort in the most serious and persistent cases. The landlord will close an ASB case if it has resolved the ASB, there is no further action it can take, or if no ASB is occurring.
  5. The landlord’s complaints policy defines a complaint, in accordance with the Housing Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code (the Code) definition, as an expression of dissatisfaction, however made, about the standard of service, actions, or lack of action by the landlord, its staff or those acting on its behalf, affecting an individual resident or group of residents. Under the policy the landlord will acknowledge complaints within 2 working days. It will respond to stage 1 complaints within 10 working days or will explain to the resident if it cannot, and will give a new response date which will not exceed a further 10 working days without good reason. If the resident remains dissatisfied, they can ask to escalate the complaint to stage 2. The landlord will respond to stage 2 complaints within 20 working days. If it cannot meet this timeframe, it will explain this to the resident and give a new response date, which will not exceed a further 10 working days without good reason.
  6. The landlord has a compensation policy which says it will consider offering discretionary compensation for service failure, to recognise any loss or disadvantage suffered by the resident. It will assess compensation by referring to its internal compensation guidance document, which says this can be paid for damage, loss, inconvenience and distress, or loss of earnings. The guidance also includes a table of compensation values based on level of impact and duration of service failure.
  7. The resident has told this Service that the outcome she is seeking is for the neighbour to be removed from his property. The Ombudsman has advised her that this is not something we can order or recommend the landlord do as it would adversely affect another person.

Summary of events

  1. Between 15 April 2019 and 30 August 2019, the resident called the landlord 5 times to report the neighbour. She said she had concerns for his mental health as he had been shouting in the streets and had moved her CCTV camera. The landlord wrote to the neighbour twice during this time to arrange to visit him.
  2. On 4 May 2020 the resident called the landlord to report that the neighbour had been shouting and swearing at her and other neighbours and having arguments with no-one. She had also recorded him punching the air on her CCTV camera. She said everyone was frightened of him. The landlord’s note says it agreed to send the resident a personal alarm and a window alarm.
  3. Between 5 May 2020 and 7 May 2020, the landlord created an ASB case with its specialist ASB team and called the resident to complete a risk assessment. It also received a further report of ASB from a different neighbour about the neighbour and said it would send out an ASB questionnaire to all neighbours on the street. Finally, it wrote to the resident providing information on how to contact its named ASB officer, advice on when to call the police, details for support services and a summary of its advice and actions.
  4. The landlord, on 11 May 2020, posted out the ASB questionnaire, and emailed the police for any information it had about the neighbour. The resident also emailed the landlord that day, saying it had been “horrendous” living next to the neighbour who had thrown bricks into her garden and shouted abuse at her from inside his property and it was affecting her and her daughter.
  5. Between 12 May 2020 and 14 May 2020, the landlord emailed the local authority social services and the community mental health team (CMHT) to ask for assistance with the neighbour. Both services replied that they were unable to assist.
  6. The landlord called the neighbour on 15 May 2020 and 18 May 2020. During these calls the neighbour made counter allegations that the resident had been spying on him and trying to “wind him up”. The landlord gave him a verbal warning about the ASB, and he agreed not to speak to the resident.
  7. On 18 May 2020 the landlord called the CMHT to check that it could not assist, and it confirmed this. The landlord also called the resident to provide an update on the actions it had taken and confirmed the police had visited the neighbour. The following day the police emailed the landlord and said it had no concerns for the neighbour’s welfare.
  8. The landlord called the resident on 27 May 2020, 16 June 2020, and 7 July 2020 to check on the situation and the resident said there had been no further incidents. However, she then emailed the landlord on 15 July 2020 and reported that the neighbour was still shouting abuse from inside his property but not directed at her. The landlord called the resident again on 14 August 2020 but she did not answer.
  9. On 1 September 2020 the landlord emailed the resident to ask if there had been any further ASB incidents and said that it was looking to close the ASB case. She replied the same day, said that there had been no further ASB, and she was happy for the case to be closed. The landlord wrote to the resident on 11 September 2020 to confirm it had closed the case but said the details would remain on file.
  10. The resident used the landlord’s online form to report ASB caused by the neighbour on 21 November 2020. She said she had called the police after the neighbour had been slamming his front door all night. She said when she had asked him to stop, he threatened her and nearly hit her with his walking stick. She was concerned for her and her daughter’s safety and wanted the landlord to move the neighbour. The resident also sent a CCTV video of the incident to the landlord but said her camera did not record sound.
  11. Between 24 November 2020 and 26 November 2020, the landlord:
    1. Emailed the resident and she replied saying the neighbour had been trying to intimidate her and her daughter by standing at his window and making rude gestures.
    2. Emailed the police for information and assistance. The police replied and suggested arranging a joint visit to see the neighbour.
    3. Called the resident and completed a risk assessment. It also agreed a plan of action with her and said it would contact other agencies for assistance, contact the neighbour, consider an acceptable behaviour contract, and improve lighting around the property.
    4. Called and wrote to the neighbour’s GP for assistance.
  12. The landlord tried to call the neighbour, and his next of kin, on 4 December 2020 but could not reach them. It also called the CMHT and asked for a callback.
  13. On 7 December 2020 the resident emailed the landlord and said the neighbour had been making “weird growling noises” at her through his window when she was outside.
  14. The landlord spoke to the CMHT on 9 December 2020 and had a telephone meeting with the police. It then called the neighbour on 11 December 2020 to discuss the ASB and told him it would issue a formal warning about his behaviour. Finally, it spoke to the neighbour’s next of kin about the ASB incidents and the neighbour ‘shadow boxing’.
  15. On 21 December 2020 the landlord spoke to a doctor at the CMHT who had visited the neighbour but had no concerns. The landlord’s note of the call said the doctor agreed that mediation could be a good option to resolve the situation. The landlord called the resident the next day and suggested mediation which she agreed to. It also sent a formal warning letter to the neighbour about the ASB.
  16. The resident called the landlord on 19 January 2021 and left a voicemail, saying the neighbour was still being aggressive and punching the air outside his property, but she had kept away from him. The landlord emailed the resident on 25 January 2021 about her voicemail. The next day the resident replied that the neighbour was constantly making noise. The landlord called the neighbour and discussed the ASB and warning it had given him. It also asked if he would agree to mediation, and he said he would.
  17. On 10 March 2021 the landlord emailed the resident and asked if there had been any further ASB. It also said it was trying to arrange face to face mediation as soon as possible following the COVID-19 restrictions which had been in place. The landlord emailed the mediator on 13 April 2021 for an update on arranging a meeting and emailed the resident to let her know. Between 28 April 2021 and 27 May 2021, the landlord and the mediator exchanged emails to arrange the mediation and a suitable venue for it to take place, which was complicated by COVID-19. The landlord also emailed the resident during this time to keep her updated and confirmed it had made a referral for mediation.
  18. The landlord and the mediator exchanged further emails between 1 June 2021 and 14 June 2021 and agreed to meet with the resident and the neighbour individually at first. However, on 27 June 2021, the mediator emailed the landlord and said it did not recommend face to face mediation between the resident and the neighbour. It said it was available for them to contact it further if they wished.
  19. The resident called the landlord on 26 August 2021 and said that the neighbour had been continually banging and shouting for 4 hours so she had called the police as she was concerned for his welfare. The next day the landlord:
    1. Emailed the police and the CMHT asking for information about any recent contact they may have had with the neighbour.
    2. Called the neighbour to discuss the ASB, who said the resident had been playing loud music.
    3. Called the resident to discuss the ASB. She said it was affecting her daughter who is autistic, and it felt like she was a prisoner in her home because of the neighbour’s behaviour. She also said her CCTV camera was starting to not work. The landlord agreed a plan of action. It followed the call with an email and said it would order a Ring doorbell CCTV camera and raise a job to install sensor security lights to the property, which it did that day.
  20. On 22 September 2021 the resident emailed the landlord twice to report ASB. In her first email, sent at nearly 3am, she said the neighbour had been banging which had woken her and her daughter up so she had called the police. In her second email, sent at 7am, she said the neighbour had been banging on the bedroom walls, which are shared between her property and his, and had been shouting all night. This had affected her and her daughter’s sleep. On the same day the council’s environmental health team (EHT) emailed the landlord and the landlord called to discuss the ongoing ASB. The EHT said the resident had contacted it, it had opened a case and asked the resident to keep a log. The resident also emailed the landlord again and said the Ring doorbell had recorded the neighbour staring into her bedroom window.
  21. The landlord and the police exchanged emails on 24 September 2021 to arrange a joint visit to the neighbour and the landlord emailed the resident to let her know about the visit. The landlord’s note of the visit, on 29 September 2021, said that the neighbour said the resident had been playing loud bass music all night and he had been banging on the wall and shouting in response.
  22. The landlord and the resident exchanged emails on 15 October 2021 and 22 October 2021. The landlord asked if there had been any further ASB and the resident said it had been mostly quiet. The landlord also emailed the EHT on 22 October 2021, which replied it had not been contacted by the resident again. However, on 3 November 2021 the EHT called the landlord and said it had visited the neighbour and he had disclosed personal health information to it which was pertinent to the ASB case and called into question the accuracy of his counter allegations against the resident. On 5 November 2021 the landlord emailed the resident and said it was going to arrange a multi-agency risk management meeting (MARMM) in response to this information.
  23. The resident reported further ASB to the landlord on 26 November 2021 and 2 December 2021. On 23 December 2021 she emailed the landlord to say the neighbour had had a fall, was having regular visitors and had not been causing any more ASB. The EHT also emailed the landlord that day and said it was considering closing the case.
  24. On 12 January 2022, in an internal email, the landlord said it was considering closing the ASB case, and the EHT had closed its case, as there had been no further ASB. It said this also meant the MARMM was no longer needed. On the same day the landlord emailed the resident, and she replied that the neighbour had been banging his front door loudly very early in the morning.
  25. The landlord emailed the resident on 2 February 2022 saying it was considering closing the ASB case and she replied the next day saying she did not want the case to be closed. She said the neighbour had called the fire brigade out that night because of a bonfire, which it is not clear existed, and then had been banging her wall several times with his walking sticks. The landlord sent a warning letter to the neighbour about the incident on 7 February 2021. In its letter it referred to its earlier warning and said his actions were totally unacceptable and would not be tolerated. It warned that if the behaviour continued it may have to seek legal advice.
  26. On 25 February 2022 the resident emailed the landlord. She said a man had knocked on her door and said he wanted to talk to her about her complaint about the neighbour. She later found out the man was a friend of the neighbour. She said she felt frightened and called the police. The resident provided the Ring doorbell video to the landlord and the police. She has also provided a copy to this Service. The landlord tried to call the resident on 28 February 2022, and spoke to her on 2 March 2022. It also emailed the police on 4 March 2022 to ask about the incident and said it was considering a MARMM. The police replied and said it would contact the neighbour. The landlord called the resident on 22 March 2022 and said the police were not going to take any action against the man.
  27. The landlord emailed the resident on 4 April 2022 and asked if there had been any further ASB. It had arranged the MARMM for 28 April 2022 due to several professionals’ annual leave. The resident replied on 6 April 2022 and said so far all had been quiet. However, on 27 April 2022 she emailed the landlord and said the neighbour had sworn at her house, recorded by the Ring doorbell, and had banged on the wall a couple of times.
  28. The MARMM took place on 28 April 2022. The landlord’s note of the meeting says the landlord, police, mediator, EHT, the neighbour’s GP, and 2 representatives for the neighbour were present. The notes say the neighbour believes the resident has been using her washing machine and tumble drier at night to disturb him. However, independent witnesses said there was no noise when the neighbour was complaining of noise.
  29. Between 27 May 2022 and 30 May 2022, the landlord and resident exchanged emails. In these emails the landlord tried to arrange a time to call the resident and the call took place on 20 June 2022. The landlord’s note of the call says it had decided to close the ASB case as there had not been any ‘actionable’ ASB. It noted the resident was disappointed by the decision and it said it would keep all the records on file.
  30. The resident emailed the landlord on 27 June 2022 saying her daughter had had a mental breakdown at school about the ASB and she asked for the details for a manager in the specialist ASB team. The landlord replied on 30 June 2022 and provided this information to the resident.
  31. On 1 July 2022 the resident made a stage 1 complaint by email. Her complaint was about:
    1. The neighbour having caused ASB for 4 years and having been a “threat and continued nuisance” which had now affected her daughter. She said her daughter was receiving support through her school.
    2. The landlord having decided to close the ASB case because the neighbour had “gone quiet”, and that this was a reoccurring pattern. She said the neighbour had continued to bang on the walls at night, but it had become too difficult to record this.
    3. Feeling that everything she had done to record evidence had been a waste of her time and that the ASB case should be kept open.
  32. The landlord emailed the resident on 5 July 2022 to acknowledge her complaint. It said it aimed to respond by 19 July 2022 but if it could not it would write to her. It gave a named member of staff and contact details for who would respond to the complaint. It also advised of its commitment to follow the Code. However, on 19 July 2022 the landlord emailed the resident and said it needed more time to respond. It apologised and said it would respond by 2 August 2022.
  33. On 22 July 2022 the landlord provided its stage 1 response when it:
    1. Said it had spoken to the resident and agreed to review all her ASB cases.
    2. Set out the history of the ASB cases opened on 4 May 2020 and 21 November 2021, and concluded the cases were managed professionally and in line with its ASB policy.
    3. Said that while it took ASB seriously, it was unable to move people but worked with partner agencies to reduce the ASB and support those experiencing it.
    4. Explained it understood there were gaps between incidents but that it had to close the ASB case where there was a long period of time without incident. It said it kept the records and these could be reviewed if further ASB occurred in the future.
    5. Gave details on how to escalate the complaint it the resident was dissatisfied.
  34. The resident emailed the landlord the same day and asked to escalate her complaint. She said the response was not correct and that the ASB started when the neighbour moved her CCTV camera. She also said the landlord’s account had missed out many ASB incidents and that she was told by the landlord that if the MARMM did not provide a solution “the next step would be removal” of the neighbour.
  35. On 23 July 2022 and 26 July 2022, the resident emailed the landlord and reported that the neighbour had been banging on the walls and shouting loudly, calling the resident an unpleasant name. The landlord emailed the resident on 26 July 2022 to acknowledge her stage 2 complaint.
  36. The resident emailed the landlord again on 31 July 2022 and said that the neighbour had been shouting from midnight until nearly 1pm the following day, when she called for an ambulance to do a welfare check. The landlord acknowledged her emails the following day. The landlord then carried out a case review. The note of the review says that the landlord would need to act proportionately.
  37. On 3 August 2022 the landlord sent an ASB warning letter to the neighbour which set out the ASB, said that there was no evidence the resident was disturbing him, that his behaviour was wholly unacceptable, and that it had to stop. On the same day the landlord also wrote to the neighbour’s GP expressing its concerns for the neighbour.
  38. The landlord provided its stage 2 complaint response on 10 August 2022, in which it:
    1. Set out the resident’s points raised in her request to escalate
    2. Said the specialist ASB team had no knowledge of the incidents in 2019.
    3. Agreed that the resident had expressed concern at the ASB case being closed but said she had agreed to report any further ASB, and that the landlord would consider opening a new case.
    4. Found no evidence of having told the resident that the neighbour was on a final warning, but a MARMM had been held. It also said it would never offer something it could not deliver.
    5. Apologised for the impact the ASB was having on the resident and her daughter. It could appreciate her frustration but its powers to resolve the situation were quite limited.
    6. Did not uphold the complaint and provided details on how to contact this Service.

Events after the end of the landlord’s complaints process

  1. The resident emailed the landlord between 14 August 2022 and 16 August 2022 and reported that the neighbour had been shouting and banging on the walls, said there had been an altercation with the neighbour which she reported to the police, and sent in a petition.
  2. The landlord opened a new ASB case on 26 November 2022. For brevity the events after this date have not been included in this report. This is because the Ombudsman cannot investigate matters which occurred after the resident has exhausted the landlord’s complaints procedure, as the landlord would not have had the opportunity to have investigated and resolved these matters itself.

Assessment and findings

The landlords handling of the resident’s reports of ASB

  1. The resident reported ASB in 2019 and the landlord’s housing officer visited the neighbour twice. There was then a gap of 8 months before the resident reported further ASB on 4 May 2020. The landlord followed its ASB policy; it created a case, carried out a risk assessment, assigned the case to its specialist ASB officer, sent out alarms, gave advice on when to call the police, gave details for support services, and summarised its advice and actions. Within a few days it had also sent out an ASB questionnaire and contacted social services and the CHMT.
  2. The landlord spoke to the neighbour over the telephone twice and gave a verbal ASB warning. This was reasonable as during that time COVID-19 lockdown measures were in place making visiting in person difficult. The landlord also updated the resident and was in contact with the police, which were positive steps to have taken. The landlord kept in regular contact with the resident, proactively calling her to check on the situation up until 1 September 2020 when it decided to close the ASB case, which was a reasonable course of action.
  3. When the resident reported further ASB on 21 November 2020, 4 months after her last report, the landlord opened a new case. It followed its policy by, within a few days, confirming what had happened with the resident, completing a new risk assessment, and assigning the case to its specialist ASB officer. It also contacted the police for assistance, wrote to the neighbour’s GP and the CMHT. It kept the resident updated and proactively agreed to provide security sensor lighting for the property. The landlord then called the neighbour, gave him a warning, and contacted his next of kin. Its actions were well thought out, proportionate and swift.
  4. In consultation with the CMHT the landlord considered the use of mediation, and asked the resident and the neighbour if they would participate, which they both said they would. This was one of the options available to the landlord under its policy and was solution focused. However, due to COVID-19, finding a venue for face to face mediation proved difficult and this was beyond the control of the landlord. It did engage a mediator, who met with the resident and the neighbour separately, however, they did not recommend face to face mediation take place. It was reasonable for the landlord to follow this advice in deciding how to proceed. During this time the landlord proactively kept in contact with the resident.
  5. After the resident reported further ASB on 26 August 2021, the following day, the landlord took action to contact the police and CMHT, spoke to the neighbour and to the resident. It agreed a plan with the resident which included buying a new Ring CCTV doorbell for her, which was a solution focused and proactive step for it to have taken.
  6. The landlord engaged with the EHT and continued to work with the police, which resulted in a joint visit to the neighbour on 29 September 2021. This visit showed the landlord and the police were taking the ASB seriously. As the neighbour made counter allegations, it was reasonable for the landlord not to have attempted an acceptable behaviour contract as it had suggested earlier. The landlord did however consider a MARMM. The landlord sent a written warning to the neighbour in February 2022 and held the MARMM on 28 April 2022. The landlord continued to follow its policy as it sought to resolve the ASB by engaging with other professionals.
  7. In its stage 1 complaint response of 22 July 2022 the landlord reviewed the ASB cases. It concluded the cases were managed professionally and in line with its ASB policy, which was correct. Following further ASB the landlord carried out a case review, including independent members of its staff, and concluded that it would need to act proportionately, which was the correct approach to take. The landlord sent a further warning letter to the neighbour, in stronger terms than the last, about his behaviour. It also wrote to his GP again before providing its stage 2 complaint response on 10 August 2022.
  8. In its stage 2 response the landlord said its powers were limited. It had followed its ASB policy and had tried different approaches to resolve the ASB. It could have considered taking legal action against the resident and it referred to the possibility of obtaining legal advice in its warning letters. The landlord has not provided any evidence that it did consider its legal options, an injunction or possession proceedings, and it would have been helpful if it had. However, the landlord had a specialist ASB team and officer, which would have had the experience and knowledge to know whether legal action was appropriate in the circumstances. The landlord’s policy says it will take a “proportionate and reasonable response”. It also says that applying for possession is a last resort. While the landlord empathised with, and this Service empathises with, the resident’s situation based on the evidence the landlord’s decision not to pursue legal action was both reasonable and proportionate.
  9. While it is regrettable that the landlord could not resolve the ASB, it acted within its policy and took proactive and solution focused steps. It balanced its actions proportionately and it acted fairly in all of the circumstances.

Determination (decision)

  1. In accordance with paragraph 52 of the Scheme, there was no maladministration in relation to the landlords handling of the resident’s reports of ASB.

Reasons

  1. There was no maladministration as the landlord followed its ASB policy. It acted quickly, worked with partner agencies, gave appropriate warnings to the neighbour, and tried to resolve the situation. It also took practical steps to protect the resident and assist in evidence gathering by providing alarms, lighting, and a new CCTV device. Its actions were reasonable and proportionate.