Hammersmith and Fulham Council
18 August 2023
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 is about the landlord’s:
- response to the resident’s concerns about his personal possessions following a fire at his property;
- complaints handling.
Background and summary of events
- The resident has been a secure tenant at the property of the landlord since April 2011. The landlord is a local authority.
- In August 2019, the resident experienced a fire at his property, which required him to be decanted while repairs took place. There were delays in the landlord’s completion of these repairs, which have been investigated by this service (complaint reference 202011986). The Ombudsman determined that the landlord provided reasonable redress for the delays experienced by the resident. The investigation also found that the resident had expressed concerns about the removal and disposal of his personal possessions following the fire, but that these concerns had not been raised as a formal complaint. The resident has now raised a formal complaint, which has completed the landlord’s internal complaints procedure and is the subject of this investigation.
- The landlord operates a repairs policy. This policy advises residents to have personal property and contents insurance. The landlord will insure the structure of the building. The policy also notes that residents must obtain permission before carrying out any improvements or alterations to their property.
- The landlord operates a compensation policy. The policy notes that the landlord will not offer compensation where the landlord is not responsible for the fault, where the claim is for damage to personal property, or where a claim can be made through an insurer.
- The landlord operates a two stage complaints policy. A stage one response will be provided within 10 working days of a complaint, and a stage two response will be provided within 20 working days of an escalation request.
Summary of events
- It is not disputed that the resident had installed a number of improvements in the property prior to the fire. As part of the repairs to the property following the fire, the landlord removed all damaged items and reinstalled new fixtures and fittings that complied with its property standards.
- On 5 September 2022, the resident raised a formal complaint, which included the following:
- He noted that following the fire, a number of installations he had made to the property had been removed and subsequently destroyed. This included wooden flooring, a water pump, a bath, sink, and toilet, a radiator, a wardrobe, and a door with various fixtures and fittings. He calculated the total cost of the items to be £5,100. He advised that he had receipts for all the items.
- He advised that the landlord’s surveyor had told him following the fire that these items would be replaced like for like, but this hadn’t occurred.
- He noted the fixtures and fittings installed by the landlord were below the standard of the improvements he had made.
- He also noted that the electric heater the landlord had installed was not capable of sufficiently heating the water in his tank.
- He requested that the shower the landlord installed be removed and a bath installed in its place, in line with the improvements he had made.
- The landlord provided its stage one response on 29 September 2022, which included the following:
- It noted the resident’s position that its surveyor had informed him the property would be restored like for like. It noted that it did not have any written evidence of this promise. It requested that the resident provide any further evidence he may have.
- It noted that it had previously investigated this concern following comments from the resident in 2021 and had already explained that this is not something it would usually offer.
- At that time, it had spoken with its surveyor, who had denied making such a promise. Instead, the surveyor said they had taken a list of the items, which they then discussed with the insurer to see what was covered. Most items were not covered.
- The landlord noted that the surveyor was supposed to have kept the resident updated about this process, but it did not have records to demonstrate this had occurred.
- The surveyor had subsequently left the organisation, so it could not question them further.
- It noted that the landlord had not provided permission for the improvements made by the resident.
- It noted the resident’s request for the shower to be replaced by a bath. It noted that the shower was its standard fitting for this property, and advised that, as the shower was functional, it would not remove it or offer any improvements.
- Regarding the residents installations, it did not have a record of what happened after their removal and was therefore unable to determine what happened to them.
- It signposted the resident to its insurer to make a claim regarding the loss of these items.
- On 12 October 2022, the resident reiterated that he considered the surveyor’s promise to be a verbal contract that the landlord should adhere to. He also noted that the surveyor had later informed him that the installations would not be replaced like for like, and so he had requested for his items to be returned to him, but did not get any update about this request. He also reiterated his concerns about the water heater not functioning correctly.
- The landlord provided its stage two response on 17 November 2022, which included the following:
- It apologised for the delay to its formal response.
- It reiterated that it did not have records of what had happened to the items removed from the property.
- It explained that since the time of the fire, it had updated its policies to include records of this nature.
- It reiterated that the resident’s claims relating to his personal possessions must go through its insurer, and it noted the resident had expressed an intention to begin this process.
- On 7 June 2023, following the referral of the complaint to this service, the landlord reevaluated its position. It met with the resident and agreed to carry out works to the bathroom, including the installation of a bath and a new wash basin. It also arranged for its repairs team to address the water heater. The parties reviewed photos of the property after the fire, and the resident agreed that the floor boards would have been difficult to salvage. The landlord acknowledged it should have discussed this with the resident at the time.
- The landlord offered compensation of £1,000 towards the cost of the flooring, £379 towards his wardrobe, and £606 towards his work surfaces. It also offered £150 for delays to its complaints responses, £175 for the resident’s time and trouble chasing answers, and £1,000 for the impact caused to the resident. The total offer of compensation amounted to £3,210.
Assessment and findings
- It is not disputed that following the fire in 2019, the landlord removed the resident’s installations as part of its repair works and they were subsequently destroyed.
- The landlord does not have specific written policies about what action it will take following a fire or how it will deal with the a resident’s installations.
- In such circumstances, the Ombudsman would expect a landlord to communicate with a resident at a high level to ensure they understood what steps were being taken. Robust records of such communication should also be kept.
- The Ombudsman understands that no two fires are the same, and there may be a vast difference in outcomes, from slight smoke damage to complete destruction. It may well be the case that all of a resident’s personal property is destroyed. A detailed inventory would, therefore, not be possible. Nevertheless, the Ombudsman would expect the landlord to report such circumstances to the resident in order to measure their expectations.
- In this case, based on the parties discussions around some of the photographs taken following the fire, it was acknowledged that the fire damage was extensive and many items would not have been recoverable. However, this discussion happened in June 2023, several years after the fire. There is no written evidence or other records from the time of the fire to show that the landlord set out its position on whether anything could be recovered.
- The Ombudsman notes that the landlord considered it had not provided permission for some of the resident’s installations. In such circumstances, it may be reasonable for the landlord to have cleared the damaged installations in the property without informing the resident, as it would have considered them to be its property. It would nevertheless have been best practice to have asked the resident about any personal property it may encounter. There is no written evidence or records to show that the landlord did this.
- The resident has maintained that, at the time of the fire, the landlord’s surveyor assured him that the installations in the property would be replaced like for like. While the Ombudsman does not dispute the resident’s account, given that there is no written evidence or records of this verbal conversation, the Ombudsman cannot make a determination on what was said. The resident contends that this amounts to a verbal contract. Whether this would amount to a verbal contract is a question for the courts, and the resident has the option to seek legal advice if he wishes to pursue this concern.
- It is evident that the resident reported his concerns about the removal and destruction of the installations to the landlord in 2021. The landlord then made enquiries with its surveyor. This was an appropriate investigation of the resident’s reports. It was also appropriate that the landlord then explained the outcome of this investigation and its position to the resident at this time.
- At the time of the resident’s formal complaint in 2022, the surveyor no longer worked for the landlord, so it was unable to question them further. It was reasonable, however, that it reiterated the outcome of its earlier investigation along with its position that, based on a lack of evidence, it would not replace the resident’s installations like for like. The resident has expressed his dissatisfaction that the landlord did not summon the surveyor to give further evidence as a court might. However, the Ombudsman would not consider it either achievable or proportionate for a landlord to seek to do this. This is because the landlord’s powers and resources are not the same as those of a court.
- When previously questioned by the landlord, the surveyor denied having made assurances about the replacement of the resident’s installations. They instead explained that they were making a list of the resident’s property to provide to the insurer. It is not disputed, however, that having done so, the surveyor should then have informed the resident of the insurer’s response. The landlord has acknowledged that the surveyor did not do this to a sufficient standard.
- It is evident, however, that the resident was at some point informed that his installations would not be replaced like for like. He then requested that the existing installations be returned to him. The resident considers this was before the installations would have been destroyed; however, in the absence of accurate records about the removal and destruction of the installations, the Ombudsman is unable to establish at what point the destruction occurred. Nevertheless, having received a request to retrieve the installations, the Ombudsman would expect the landlord to provide its position on whether this was possible. It is not evident that any communication of this nature was given.
- The landlord has acknowledged that at the time of the fire, its repairs system was not sufficiently robust to keep records about the removal and disposal of installations following a fire. The landlord’s internal communications note that from 2021 onwards its new repairs system would now capture this information. While this was not helpful for the resident’s situation, it was nevertheless appropriate that the landlord advised in its formal response that it had taken steps to ensure this issue would not occur in the future.
- When property is destroyed, it is common practice for a landlord to refer a resident to either their contents insurer or its liability insurer. In this case, from the outset, the landlord referred the resident to make a claim through its insurer and provided him with the necessary details in order to do so. It appropriately reiterated this advice throughout its formal responses. This was the correct approach, given that the installations were destroyed.
- The resident also raised concerns about the new installations in the property following the landlord’s repair works. It is not disputed that these were different from the resident’s installations. However, given that the landlord was unaware of some of the resident’s improvement works and that it had not taken responsibility for the other installations he had made, it was reasonable for the landlord to seek to return the property to its original standard. Having said that, it would have been helpful and could have avoided unnecessary expenditure had the landlord engaged in discussion with the resident to determine if he planned on making any improvements following the works.
- Given that the new shower was functioning correctly, it was reasonable for the landlord not to consider any further works and to deny the resident’s request that it install a bath in its place. This is because there is a difference between a landlord’s repair responsibility and a request for an improvement. The landlord is required to use its funds responsibility, so it was reasonable that it denied the request for an improvement that it was not obligated to complete. This is not to say it wouldn’t have given the resident permission to install his own bath had he requested this. The landlord could have made this distinction clearer in its responses.
- The resident also raised concerns that the new water heater was not fit for purpose. It is evident that the landlord has subsequently addressed this issue; however, it missed the opportunity to set out its position in its formal responses, which would have caused considerable frustration for the resident and led him to expend further time and trouble chasing the issue.
- The Ombudsman notes that some time after its final response and following the resident’s referral of the complaint to this service, the landlord reevaluated its position and made an offer of compensation. This offer was extensive and covered costs towards the installations, as well as an amount to reflect the resident’s time and trouble pursuing the issue and the distress and inconvenience he had experienced. The landlord also agreed to reinstate the bathroom in line with the resident’s installations (i.e. a bath and new basin) and to ensure the water heater functioned correctly.
- The Ombudsman welcomes and encourages landlords to proactively revisit opportunities for the resolution of a complaint. However, given the time that had elapsed and the circumstances in which this offer was made, it has not been considered as part of this investigation. Instead, this investigation has focused on the landlord’s actions at the time of its complaint response.
- In summary, upon receiving the complaint, the landlord’s investigation was reasonable. It sought to establish what had happened, and upon discovering it didn’t have sufficient records, it explained this to the resident and noted what it had done to improve its service. It is also evident that, at an earlier date, it carried out a reasonable investigation of the resident’s assertions regarding its surveyor and appropriately reiterated its position on this matter in its formal responses.
- However, it is not disputed that at no point following the fire did the landlord make any attempt to discuss the resident’s installations or keep him updated about their removal. Its surveyor also failed to provide sufficient updates about the replacement following their discussions with the insurer. While the landlord’s repair systems may now have been revised, at the time of the fire they were not sufficient, which contributed to the distress and inconvenience experienced by the resident. Additionally, the landlord missed the opportunity to set out its position regarding the water heater in its formal responses.
- The above identified failings amount to maladministration in the circumstances, for which compensation is appropriate. Given the resident’s time and trouble in chasing up the issue and the impact the landlord’s failings had on him, an amount of £1,175 has been ordered. The Ombudsman notes that the landlord has already made a payment of this amount to the resident for these issues, and so no further compensation is payable.
- The Ombudsman notes that the further amount of £1,985 relating to the flooring, wardrobe, and kitchen surfaces has been paid to the resident as per its offer from June 2023.
- The landlord’s complaints policy states that a stage one response will be provided within 10 working days of a complaint, and a stage two response will be provided within 20 working days of an escalation request.
- The landlord’s stage one response was provided 17 working days after the resident’s complaint, and its stage two response was provided 26 working days after his escalation request.
- Where a landlord is likely to miss the timeframes of its complaints policy, the Ombudsman expects it to keep a resident updated and provide a new indicative timeframe for its response. It is not evident that the landlord did this.
- As with above, the landlord’s offer of £150 for its complaints handling delays made in June 2023 has not been considered as part of this investigation.
- While the landlord appropriately apologised for the delay to its stage two response, its failure to keep the resident updated would have caused the resident distress and amounted to service failure in the circumstances. An amount of £150 compensation has been ordered, which the Ombudsman notes has already been paid by the landlord, and so no further compensation is payable.
- In accordance with paragraph 52 of the Scheme there was maladministration by the landlord in respect of its response to the resident’s concerns about his personal possessions following a fire at his property.
- In accordance with paragraph 52 of the Scheme there was service failure by the landlord in respect of its complaints handling.
- While the landlord appropriately acknowledged the deficiencies in its record keeping at the time of the fire and signposted the resident to its insurer, its lack of communication about the resident’s installations caused him distress and inconvenience which should have been avoided.
- The landlord’s formal complaint responses were also delayed, adding to the distress caused to the resident.
- The Ombudsman orders compensation of £1,325, comprising:
- £1,175 for any distress and inconvenience caused to the resident by its poor communication and record keeping;
- £150 for its ineffective complaints handling.
- The Ombudsman notes this amount had already been paid to the resident and so no further action is necessary.