27 September 2021
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.
- This complaint is about the landlord’s handling of:
- kitchen upgrade works to the resident’s property;
- the resident’s reports of repairs needed to her property;
- the related complaint.
Background and summary of events
- The resident began an introductory tenancy at the property on 8 February 2016. The property is a three-bedroom mid-terraced house and the landlord is a local authority.
- The landlord has a repairs handbook that sets out that it is responsible for repairs to the structure and outside parts of a property and that there are four categories of repairs, namely out of hours (completed immediately), emergency (completed within 24 hours), agreed appointment (completed within 28 days) and planned (inspected within 28 days and completed in a timescale agreed at inspection).
- The landlord has a decent homes guide that outlines how it brings properties up to standard, including ensuring that kitchens are less than 20 years old or in good condition. It sets out that the landlord will carry out a detailed design survey and provide assistance, through resident liaison officers, in a ‘timely manner’ where a resident’s enquiries cannot be dealt with by the contractor.
- The landlord’s website shows that tenants should check what permissions are required before making alterations to their property by liaising with a tenancy management officer and the local authority environmental services department.
- The landlord’s complaints policy sets out a two-stage complaints process with responses required within ten working days (at stage one) and 25 working days (at stage two).
- The landlord has a compensation policy that allows for it to make discretionary compensation awards where there has been service failure or delay that has adversely affected a resident.
- The resident has a representative who has on occasion written to the landlord on her behalf. For simplicity, any correspondence sent by the representative will be described as from ‘the resident’ in this report.
Summary of Events
- The resident wrote to the landlord on 12 November 2019 on the grounds that:
- her kitchen size was such that only one person could be in there at a time
- access to the garden was through the kitchen and this had already resulted in one of her children being injured
- the landlord should change the property layout and ensure more cupboard or kitchen worktop space
- the lock was too close to the letterbox on the front entrance door and the door frame needed attention
- there was damp to the wall by a living room window due to guttering not being fixed in the past
- radiators in the hallway and living room were permanently switched on.
- A second email was sent by the resident to the landlord on 12 November 2019 that raised the following reports of exterior repairs needed as follows:
- the exterior front door frame and framework above the door needed attention
- the front gate required a lock to stop it swinging
- only half of the front wall finish had been completed
- there was uneven paving to the front porch area
- the external window sills were in an appalling condition.
- A member of the landlord’s staff acknowledged the above emails on 12 November 2019 and said they would be forwarded to be considered as a complaint.
- The resident wrote to the landlord on 19 November 2019. She noted that kitchen works had been postponed and she had been advised to liaise with the major works department. She reiterated that the kitchen size was too small and there had been accidents as a result. She asked for a surveyor to attend to consider her request for an extended kitchen as works were due to commence on 28 November 2019 but were yet to be finalised. The resident re-submitted this email to the landlord on 10 December 2019 and 28 February 2020.
- The landlord responded to the complaint on 13 March 2020. It concluded that:
- it was not possible to provide more kitchen units due to the size of the kitchen and the removal of a wall required planning permission so was out of the contractor’s remit
- the decision was therefore taken to postpone the kitchen installation
- the size of the kitchen was not a contravention of health and safety regulations
- the resident was advised to look at a mutual exchange or property transfer if she believed it was too small for her family’s needs
- a clerk of works had been instructed to inspect the kitchen and provide a report on its condition, with recommendations for renewal.
- The resident submitted a complaint escalation request to the landlord on 26 May 2020 on the grounds that:
- she had not refused kitchen works, rather she had made suggestions to improve the kitchen design and this would not require planning permission
- she wanted the clerk of works to be someone who was qualified to advise, and decide, on the wall removal request
- she felt that the kitchen being a thoroughfare to the garden was a health and safety risk in combination with its small size
- the complaint response had not mentioned any of the other repairs issues she had raised in the original complaint
- she understood there would be delays due to the pandemic but wished for the front door security and lack of radiator controls to be addressed as a priority.
- The landlord issued its final complaint response on 1 July 2020. This concluded that:
- the kitchen upgrade had been designated as a ‘refusal’ by the resident because the major works contractor had been unable to deal with the resident’s request for a wall to be removed
- an apology was offered that it had failed to acknowledge in previous correspondence that the resident’s request for the wall removal was on health and safety grounds
- a surveyor’s appointment would be arranged to consider the resident’s wall request
- an apology was offered for delay and communication failure albeit the pandemic had meant the landlord was limited in what works could go ahead anyway
- the list of repairs mentioned in the complaint escalation were not part of the original complaint so had not been reviewed but had been passed to colleagues and would be considered by a surveyor inspection.
- The landlord completed a clerk of works report following a site visit to the property on 10 July 2020. This noted that the inspection was to consider the resident’s comments about the small size of the kitchen and her request for the kitchen to be extended into the dining room area. It found that:
- the kitchen size was 1670mm by 2600mm
- some kitchen units were in poor condition
- the wall between the kitchen and dining room appeared to be non-load bearing
- the rear wall of the dining room was not in line with the kitchen wall as the dining room had been extended in the past
- the storage capacity was undersized with only three units provided.
- The resident advised this Service in October 2020 that the most urgent outstanding issues were the lack of heating controls and the insecure front door but that no repairs issues mentioned in the complaint had been addressed. She added that she had never been provided with a copy of the surveyor’s report about her request for a property layout change due to her kitchen concerns.
- The landlord advised this Service in June 2021 that no further actions were taken regarding the kitchen complaint until this Service commenced its investigations, ‘since which an instruction has been issued to consider all options to increase the size of the kitchen’ and further information was being sought ‘before a final decision is made on how to proceed’.
Assessment and findings
- In reaching a decision we consider whether the landlord has kept to the law, followed proper procedure and good practice, and acted in a reasonable way. Our duty is to determine complaints by reference to what is, in this Service’s opinion, fair in all the circumstances of the case.
- It is not the role of this Service to decide whether the kitchen at the property requires improvement, but rather to determine whether the landlord responded to the resident’s reports of concerns with the kitchen in a reasonable manner.
- It is not disputed that the landlord intended to carry out works to the resident’s kitchen in November 2019 as part of its major works programme and that the resident made a request that month for the landlord to consider her concerns that the kitchen was too small, that it represented a health and safety risk and that it should be extended into the dining room area.
- There is no evidence that the landlord took any actions in response to the resident’s concerns other than suspending the planned kitchen installation. The landlord’s decent homes guidance shows that resident liaison officers will act in a ‘timely fashion’ where a contractor is unable to respond to a resident’s enquiries. It was therefore inappropriate that the landlord failed to answer the resident’s health and safety concerns and layout change request from November 2019 to March 2020, when it issued a complaint response.
- When the landlord did respond to the resident’s kitchen request in March 2020, it said that the size did not breach health and safety standards and advised that planning permission would be needed for a change of layout. It is of concern that the landlord did not explain its decision-making in terms of what size it had measured the kitchen to be and what standard it had compared this to and that it did not address the resident’s concerns about the location of the kitchen. Further, its advice that planning permission was needed for the change of layout was inaccurate and it offered no view on whether it would be willing to authorise this change in its capacity as the landlord. The landlord’s initial response in March 2020 was therefore unreasonable.
- The landlord did advise in March 2020 that it would arrange for a clerk of works visit to provide a full report on the kitchen condition albeit the inspection did not take place until July 2020, four months later. This Service accepts that March 2020 and the following weeks was a difficult period for most organisations given the impact of the pandemic. The capacity and ability of landlords to conduct property inspections was restricted – it was therefore not unreasonable that the landlord failed to inspect the kitchen between March-July 2020.
- The clerk of works inspection in July 2020 established that the kitchen units were in a poor condition and that storage capacity was not at the level if should be. It considered aspects of the resident’s change of layout request by assessing the nature of the walls but there is no evidence that the landlord communicated the outcome of this assessment to the resident nor that it considered progressing any kitchen repairs in the meantime. This meant that the resident was left with a kitchen that the landlord knew to be in a poor condition – this was unreasonable.
- It is not disputed that the landlord took no actions after the July 2020 clerk of works inspection despite a recommendation that the kitchen storage capacity was undersized. The landlord’s repairs policy sets out that it will agree a timescale for repairs when it inspects for a planned repair. The landlord’s failure to do so in this case was inappropriate. It is of concern that the landlord did not follow-up on the outcome of the July 2020 inspection until this Service began to investigate the complaint and that it remains unclear whether the landlord is willing to carry out a layout change and when it intends to complete the kitchen upgrade.
- In summary, the landlord failed to give an answer to the resident’s layout change request since November 2019 and has not offered a full response to her kitchen health and safety concerns. It inspected the kitchen in July 2020 but failed to complete any actions since then despite confirming that the kitchen required upgrade works.
- When the resident wrote to the landlord on 12 November 2019, she reported a range of internal and external repairs as being required. These included a section of damp wall to the living room, a lack of radiator controls, faults to the front door frame and uneven paving. Based on evidence seen by this Service, these issues were not raised by the resident prior to 12 November 2019 so there was no delay in completing any of the works up to this point.
- However, the landlord failed to raise any repair orders, arrange an inspection or communicate with the resident in response to the reports she made on 12 November 2019. The landlord’s repairs policy sets out that repairs of the type listed by the resident should have been prioritised as an appointment repair and completed within 28 days – its failure to take any actions was inappropriate.
- When the resident asked to escalate her complaint in May 2020, she advised that the landlord had failed to address the repairs issues. She listed the outstanding repairs again and highlighted that, while she understood the pandemic would be causing delays, a couple of the items (such as the front entrance door and lack of heating controls) were urgent. The landlord’s failure to take any steps to raise repairs orders or communicate with the resident about them was again inappropriate.
- The landlord advised in its final complaint response of 1 July 2020 that it had passed the repairs issues to its repairs department and that a survey would be conducted. However, there is no evidence that the landlord subsequently inspected any of these. The landlord provided this Service with a copy of its repairs records up to June 2021 and none of the repairs reported in November 2019 and chased in May 2020 are recorded as having been completed – this was unreasonable.
- Although some of the repairs mentioned by the resident were external decorative issues, matters such as the inability to control heating, damp to a living room wall, uneven paving and an insecure front door were clearly part of the landlord’s obligations and will have had an impact on the resident’s use of the property. There is no evidence that the landlord considered the potential impact of these issues on the resident’s living conditions – this was unreasonable.
- In summary, the landlord failed to take any actions to address repairs reported by the resident in November 2019 and chased in May 2020. There was an unreasonable delay of at least 18 months in the landlord responding to the resident’s repairs reports and it is still unclear that any steps have been taken to date.
- The resident submitted two emails to the landlord on 12 November 2019, one of which related to the kitchen and other internal repairs matters while the other related to external works. The landlord advised on the same day that it would log these as a complaint but it failed to provide a complaint response until 13 March 2020, four months later. Given the landlord’s complaints policy required it to offer a stage one complaint response within ten working days, this timescale was inappropriate.
- The landlord’s stage one complaint response only provided an answer to the resident’s concerns about her kitchen. Although there is no evidence that the resident reported the repairs issues prior to the complaint being logged on 12 November 2019, it should still have responded to this aspect of the resident’s correspondence – its failure to do so was unreasonable.
- The resident asked to escalate her complaint on 26 May 2020 and the landlord issued its final complaint response to the resident on 1 July 2020. This was sent one day outside of the landlord’s 25 working day complaints policy timescale. Although the response included a review of the landlord’s handling of the kitchen issue, it inaccurately mentioned that the repairs issues had not been raised in the original complaint – this was unreasonable.
- In summary, the landlord delayed by four months in responding to the resident’s initial complaint and incorrectly stated that she had not raised repairs issues within her original complaint.
- In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was maladministration by the landlord in its handling of:
- kitchen upgrade works to the resident’s property;
- the resident’s reports of repairs needed to her property.
- In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was service failure by the landlord in its handling of the related complaint.
- The landlord did not act upon the resident’s concerns about the size and health and safety of her kitchen except to suspend a planned upgrade. It also failed to consider the resident’s request for it to extend the size of her kitchen beyond conducting a single inspection in July 2020.
- The landlord did not act upon any of the repair issues that were originally raised by the resident in November 2019.
- The landlord delayed unreasonably in issuing its stage one complaint response and its final complaint response contained inaccurate information about when the resident initially reported repairs needed to the property.
- The landlord to write to the resident to:
- apologise for the service failures identified in this report;
- confirm how it has assessed her concerns over the size and health and safety of the kitchen, including what criteria it used in reaching its decision;
- confirm the outcome of the July 2020 clerk of works inspection and its decision on the resident’s layout change request;
- advise of the likely timescale for any works it intends to carry out to the kitchen;
- advise when it intends to complete the repairs originally reported by her in November 2019.
- The landlord to pay compensation of £600 to the resident, comprised of:
- £250 in recognition of the distress and inconvenience caused to her by the maladministration in its handling of kitchen upgrade works;
- £250 in recognition of the distress and inconvenience caused to her by the maladministration in its handling of her reports of repairs needed to her property;
- £100 in recognition of the inconvenience and time and trouble caused to her by its complaint handling failures.
The landlord should confirm compliance with these orders to this Service within four weeks of the date of this report.
- The landlord to review its handling of this case and ensure it has procedures in place so that it can:
- respond in a ‘timely manner’ to enquiries from residents about the extent of major works;
- follow up on the outcomes to clerk of works inspections.
The landlord should confirm its intentions in regard to these recommendations to this Service within four weeks of the date of this report.