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Leeds City Council (202004331)

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REPORT

COMPLAINT 202004331

Leeds City Council

14 April 2021


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:
    1. The landlord’s decision to close the communal areas due to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the communal lounge and balcony.
    2. The presence and availability of the landlord’s staff during the Covid-19 pandemic. 
    3. The landlord’s response to health and safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.
    4. The landlord’s handling of repairs to the lift.

Background and summary of events

Background

  1. The complaint was made by a representative (the representative) on behalf of several residents (the residents) who live within a sheltered accommodation scheme (the scheme).  The representative is not resident at the scheme.
  2. The landlord has confirmed that when the representative made the complaint to it, they did not disclose the details of the residents who they were representing in respect of the complaint.  The landlord said that the representative only advised that it was “representing a group of residents”. 
  3. On referring the complaint to the Ombudsman, the representative provided consent from the residents they were representing.  The representative also provided details of the lead resident on whose behalf the complaint was submitted, on behalf of all of the residents.

Summary of events

  1. On 18 June 2020 the representative registered a formal complaint with the landlord by telephone.  In summary the representative said:
    1. During the Covid-19 pandemic the residents were not receiving appropriate support.  The representative noted that the residents had only received telephone contact.  The representative set out that the lack of support was putting the residents’ health and safety at risk.
    2. During the pandemic staff had not been present at the scheme despite a large office which could accommodate social distancing.  The representative noted that cleaners were attending the scheme to carry out their duties and therefore it was not clear why other staff were not present.
    3. The residents were paying a weekly service charge of £26 however were “getting nothing” for it.
    4. One lift within the scheme was out of action which was not acceptable.
  2. On 29 June 2020 the landlord provided its stage one response following two telephone calls with the representative.  The landlord opened its response by confirming its understanding of the complaint, namely:
    1. The residents were concerned regarding the closure of the communal lounge and the impact it was having on them.
    2. The residents were concerned that they were only receiving telephone contact during the pandemic. 
    3. The residents were concerned that staff were working remotely despite a large office which could accommodate social distancing.  The residents noted that cleaners continued to attend the scheme to carry out their duties.
    4. The residents were concerned that a lift was out of order which resulted in them not being able to easily move around the scheme.
    5. The residents were concerned that the management of “health and safety” at the scheme had not been complied with.
  3. In response to the complaint the landlord said:
    1. Communal lounges across all retirement schemes were closed in response to the pandemic.  The landlord confirmed that it was currently working with the local authority to understand how it could make communal lounges “Covid secure” in line with Government guidance.  The landlord acknowledged that closure of the communal lounge at the scheme would have impacted on the residents.  The landlord confirmed that it continued to provide advice and support to residents regarding lockdown restrictions, including opportunities to meet outdoors and within social bubbles.
    2. It was following Government guidance to ensure that its staff and residents were protected from Covid-19.  The landlord explained that it had therefore adapted its service to provide a “telephone wellbeing contact service” which had been offered to all residents with staff working remotely from home.  The landlord confirmed that where telephone contact was not practical or due to vulnerabilities a visit was undertaken in line with social distancing.  The landlord stated that all residents were contacted “as per their contact requirements to discuss both their physical and mental health needs and referrals [were] made to agencies to ensure that all tenants [received] the tailored support that they [needed]”.
    3. The cleaning regime at the scheme was “paramount” in keeping residents safe.  The landlord explained that cleaning staff were on site regularly to ensure that the scheme was maintained in line with Covid-19 guidance.
    4. It was working with the local authority to review office spaces within the scheme in order to make sure they were Covid safe.
    5. It was first notified of a fault to the lift on 17 June 2020 and it was immediately repaired however the fault reoccurred on 18 June 2020.  The landlord confirmed that the issue was resolved on 19 June 2020 when the manufacturer replaced a faulty micro switch.
    6. The management of the health and safety of the scheme was currently being carried out by its Technical Officers as its Support Officers remained working from home.  The landlord explained that the Technical Officers were completing weekly fire alarm testing in addition to “the health and safety inspections required” to fulfil its statutory obligations.
    7. It was unable to grant the residents access to the external balcony space at the scheme.  The landlord explained that this was because the area could only be accessed via the communal lounge which was not available for use.  The landlord noted that there were alternative outdoor spaces at the scheme with seating which could be used by residents.
    8. It would keep residents updated regarding the resumption of services at the scheme.
    9. It would arrange a “have your say meeting” for residents to discuss any concerns when it was safe to do so.
  4. On 9 July 2020 the representative requested to escalate the complaint.  In summary the representative said:
    1. The residents were not happy with the landlord’s response as it did not demonstrate flexibility in its approach.
    2. The residents had not had proper access to outside space for months.  While the representative agreed that there was some alternative space outside, it was not sufficient as the spaces only had two benches which could not accommodate all residents.
    3. The balcony area should be open as it was the Government’s view that access to outside space was especially important for vulnerable people.
    4. The residents had requested that she represent them as they felt “intimidated” by landlord staff.  The representative stated that the landlord was “playing on [residents’] vulnerabilities and they [were] not being listen to”.
    5. The scheme had not had one Covid-19 related death or hospitalisation.  The representative said this should be taken into account when making decisions regarding the scheme. 
    6. The scheme had two lifts, one of which had been out of order for five months.  It was therefore unacceptable that the second lift had been out of service for a period of approximately 24 hours in June 2020.  The representative confirmed that the residents relied on the lifts to move around the scheme.
    7. The residents were concerned regarding the landlord’s communication about the pandemic as the tone and wording was inappropriate. 
    8. The residents were concerned regarding the conduct of the scheme’s team leader (the TM).  The representative stated that the TM had cut the phone off and was never free to speak.
    9. She had informed the TM that some residents felt lonely and felt like ending their life due to Covid-19.  The representative stated that despite the TM committing to providing some advice leaflets to the residents this had not happened.
    10. The residents felt that their health and wellbeing had been compromised by the landlord.
  5. On 27 July 2020 the landlord provided its stage two (final) response following a telephone call with the representative on 10 July 2020.  The landlord opened its response by confirming its understanding of the complaint, namely:
    1. The residents were not happy with its decision to close the communal areas across all schemes as they felt that the decision should be “adapted” to each individual scheme.
    2. The residents were concerned regarding their access to outside spaces, including the communal balcony area.
    3. The residents had requested that the representative act on their behalf as they were intimidated by it, including the nature of its communication.
    4. The residents were concerned regarding availability of the lifts within the scheme.
    5. The residents were not happy with the TM.
  6. In response to the complaint the landlord said:
    1. The decision to close communal areas across all schemes was made in line with Government guidance on Covid-19 and “not taken lightly”.  The landlord noted that the guidance in March 2020 was to social distance and stay home.  The landlord stated that in closing the communal lounge within the scheme it was seeking to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19.
    2. As lockdown restrictions had eased and further Government guidance had been issued it was completing risk assessments that took into account “more fully the individual nature of each scheme to review what measures should be put in place to make them Covid secure”.  The landlord explained this included “footfall and the nature of the use of each space”.  The landlord stated that it was “not possible” to consult with residents to inform these decision as it must be guided by Covid secure principles.
    3. It was “acutely” aware that the closure of communal areas had caused residents to feel more isolated, however due to the pandemic it was safer if the areas were not used.  The landlord noted that the most recent Government advice updated on 22 July 2020 set out that “the advice for those aged 70 and over [continued] to be that they should take particular care to minimise contact with others outside their household”.
    4. It acknowledged that there was limited outside space within the scheme, however there were benches on the communal grass to the front of the building which residents could use.
    5. It had made the decision to close the communal balcony, accessed via the communal lounge, as the space did not allow for social distancing.
    6. It noted the residents’ concerns regarding the wording of its communication.  The landlord apologised, however explained that its messages had to be clear and concise to deter the residents from using the communal areas.
    7. It was concerned that some of the residents felt intimated by it and therefore encouraged them to contact it so that it could discuss their individual concerns.
    8. In response to the residents’ concerns that they did not feel listened to, it would ask them directly during their regular telephone contacts if they had any issues or concerns they wished to raise so that it could take action.
    9. One of the lifts broke down on 17 June 2020 and was reinstated on 19 June 2020 following the installation of a new part (lift A).  The landlord explained that the other lift (lift B) was out of order as it was in the process of being replaced.  The landlord confirmed that the installation started prior to lockdown and was halted due to the pandemic.  The landlord advised that the lift department was remobilising following “a comprehensive risk assessment” and engineers would be on site w/c 20 July 2020 to finish the installation of lift B.
    10. It was sorry that residents did not feel that the service provided by the TM was satisfactory.  The landlord explained that as staff were working remotely it had meant changes to staff availability to respond to queries or requests for contact.  The landlord confirmed that it had spoken with the TM who confirmed that there “were occasions of missed calls and text messages” however they had returned the calls as soon as they were able to do so.
    11. The TM had spoken with its Support Officers following information from the representative that some residents felt lonely and suicidal to ensure that they could provide meaningful support during telephone contacts, and to make any referrals for additional support.  The landlord said it was sorry that the leaflet had not been provided, however.
  7. The landlord concluded by confirming that the residents may refer their complaint to the Ombudsman if they were not happy with its response.
  8. On referring the complaint to the Ombudsman, the representative provided statements from some of the residents in respect of the complaint.  In summary the statements documented that the residents felt let down and neglected by the landlord during the Covid-19 pandemic, including its decision on communal areas, its decision for staff to work remotely and its communication with them.  The representative also provided photographs documenting the closure of the communal areas and the contact number for officers working remotely. The Ombudsman notes that these statements and information were not provided to the landlord during its consideration of this complaint.

Assessment and findings

Scope of investigation

  1. The complaint which was made to the landlord was submitted as a group complaint by the representative on behalf of the residents.  The complaint did not raise concerns relating to the individual circumstances of any of the residents while it was being considered by the landlord.  Rather the complaint set out that the matters complained of concerned all the residents and impacted on them in the same way.  The Ombudsman can see that in responding to the complaint the landlord provided a general response to the matters complained of, as it was not provided with details of the residents.
  2. Paragraph 25 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme sets out who can bring a complaint to the Ombudsman.  There is no provision under paragraph 25 for the Ombudsman to consider complaints from groups of residents.  However, paragraph 47 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme states that the Ombudsman may accept an individuals’ complaint as a test case if its facts affect others in the same way.  The Ombudsman can therefore determine this complaint as a group complaint using the lead resident as the test case.  The conclusions made may then be applied to the other residents. 
  3. The Ombudsman accepts that Covid-19 has had a major impact on the services a landlord is able to provide, and therefore that some normal services will have been significantly and unavoidably disrupted during the pandemic and going forwards.  In considering complaints related to Covid-19 the Ombudsman will consider the impact of the pandemic on the decisions and actions that a landlord has had to undertake during the period and take this into account when investigating complaints from residents. 

The landlord’s decision to close the communal areas due to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the communal lounge and balcony

  1. In March 2020 the Government introduced new guidance in response to Covid-19.  The measures required people to stay at home, to practice social distancing and to not gather in groups of more than two people in public. The Government set out that the guidance had been introduced to “help reduce the spread of infection”.   In response to this guidance the landlord removed access to the communal areas within the scheme.  In the Ombudsman’s opinion the landlord’s response was reasonable as it was an action it could take to ensure that contact between residents was minimised and to discourage gathering by the residents, in order to comply with the guidance.
  2. The landlord has provided evidence that from March 2020 it communicated its decision to close the communal areas within the scheme.  This included by putting up posters, emailing residents and notifying residents during welfare contacts.  This was appropriate to ensure that residents were appropriately informed of the changes and knew what to expect.
  3. Within its complaint responses the landlord explained that it had not yet reinstated access to the communal areas, despite the circumstances of the pandemic evolving, as it was reviewing the measures required to make the areas Covid secure.  In the Ombudsman’s opinion the landlord’s approach was reasonable to determine if the areas could be used safely and without creating risk to the residents.  The Ombudsman notes that in June 2020 the Government’s advice for “those over 70” was that they should take particular care to minimise contact with others outside their household, further reinforcing the need for a cautious approach by the landlord to reopening the communal areas within the scheme.
  4. In the Ombudsman’s opinion the landlord’s decision to close the communal balcony was reasonable, despite it being an outdoor area.  This is because the landlord explained that access was through the communal lounge, the balcony did not provide sufficient space for social distancing and other outdoor spaces were available within the scheme for use by the residents.
  5. In responding to the complaint the landlord acknowledged that the closure of the communal areas had resulted in the residents feeling more isolated.  In the Ombudsman’s opinion this was appropriate to demonstrate that the landlord understood the impact of the situation on the residents which was through no fault of their own.  

The presence and availability of the landlord’s staff during the Covid-19 pandemic

  1. On 16 March 2020 the Government issued guidance advising people to work from home and to avoid contact with others outside of their own households.  In response to this guidance the landlord modified the way its support staff carried out their duties, specifically its staff began to work remotely.  While the residents were not satisfied with support staff working remotely the Ombudsman is satisfied that the adjustment was reasonable.  This is because the landlord explained that while staff were working from home they were still able to carry out their duties, albeit in a modified way.  Most notably the replacement of face-to-face visits with “telephone welfare contacts”.  In the Ombudsman’s opinion the telephone contact will have enabled the landlord to maintain regular contact with the residents to identify and manage their support needs.  The Ombudsman notes that the tenant’s handbook sets out that support may be offered in one of the following ways – a visit, a telephone call, a text message or email.  Thus, the introduction of welfare telephone contacts was in line with the landlord’s policies and procedures. 
  2. As part of their complaint the residents raised concerns regarding the availability of the TM.  The Ombudsman notes that the residents did not provide any specific examples of poor communication within their complaint.  Thus, in the Ombudsman’s opinion it was reasonable for the landlord to provide a general response, confirming that the TM would not always be able to respond immediately to a contact, however they would endeavour to make contact as soon as possible thereafter.    
  3. In responding to the complaint the landlord explained why cleaners continued to attend the scheme to carry out their duties during the pandemic when support staff were not, as detailed in paragraph 7(c).  In the Ombudsman’s opinion the landlord’s decision to not suspend cleaning duties during the pandemic was appropriate as it was an action that it could take to manage the spread of the virus for the benefit of the residents. 
  4. As part of its complaint response the landlord invited the residents to contact it individually to report any specific concerns that they had regarding the service it was able to provide during the pandemic and to request assistance.  The landlord also confirmed that it would ask the residents directly during their welfare telephone contacts if they had any concerns.  In the Ombudsman’s opinion this demonstrated that the landlord wanted to ensure that the residents were appropriately supported during the pandemic and it was willing to address any issues put to it.  The Ombudsman notes that, without specific examples, the landlord was limited in other actions it could take to modify the service it could provide.

The landlord’s response to health and safety during the Covid-19 pandemic

  1. The landlord has provided evidence that during the pandemic it continued to ensure that it meet its statutory obligations in relation to health and safety, specifically by undertaking weekly fire tests.

The landlord’s handling of repairs to the lift

  1. The landlord’s repair policy sets out that the landlord is responsible for maintaining and repairing communal lifts.  The repair policy does not confirm under which repair priority lift breakdowns will be attended to – emergency (repair within 24 hours), priority (repair within a maximum of seven working days) or general (repair withing 20 working days).
  2. The landlord has provided the repair records for the lift during the period under investigation.  In respect of lift A the records show that:
    1. A fault was reported at 4.26pm on 16 June 2020.  The fault was attended to on the same day and left in working order at 7.30pm.
    2. A fault was report at 10.56am on 17 June 2020.  The fault was attended to on the same day and left in working order at 1.20pm.
    3. A fault was reported at 3.10pm on 18 June 2020.  The fault was attended to on the same day however could not be rectified as a part was required.  The engineer returned on 19 June 2020 and the lift was left in working order by 6.10pm.
  3. While the Ombudsman recognises the residents’ dissatisfaction caused by the faults affecting lift A, and the inconvenience, the Ombudsman has not identified any maladministration in the service the landlord offered to repair it.  This is because the records demonstrate that on receiving notification of a fault to lift A, the landlord promptly instructed an engineer to attend to fix the fault, with no repair taking longer than 27 hours to complete.
  4. In respect of lift B the landlord explained that it was out of service during the period under investigation, as the project to replace it had been suspended due to the pandemic.  The landlord confirmed that the programme to replace lift B was scheduled to take approximately six months from its start date in January 2020.  The Ombudsman can see that that lift B’s replacement was completed by August 2020.  As noted above, while lift B was out of service, downtime of lift A was kept to minimum as any faults were responded to promptly. 

Determination (decision)

  1. In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman scheme there was no maladministration by the landlord in respect of:
    1. Its decision to close the communal areas due to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the communal lounge and balcony.
    2. The presence and availability of its staff during the Covid-19 pandemic. 
    3. Its response to health and safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.
    4. Its handling of repairs to the lift.

Reasons

  1. The landlord’s decision to close the communal areas was reasonable as it was a step it could take to ensure that contact between residents was minimised and to discourage gathering by the residents in line with social distancing guidance.
  2. The evidence shows that the landlord communicated with the residents regarding closure of the communal areas from March 2020.  This was appropriate so that they were aware of the changes and knew what to expect.
  3. The landlord’s decision to modify the way its support staff carried out its duties was reasonable as its decision was made taking into account the Government’s guidance on Covid-19.  The tenant’s handbook sets out that support may be offered in one of the following ways – a visit, a telephone call, a text message or email.  Thus, the introduction of welfare telephone contacts was in line with the landlord’s policies and procedures. 
  1. The landlord’s decision to not suspend cleaning duties during the pandemic was appropriate as it was an action that it could take to manage the spread of the virus for the benefit of the residents. 
  2. During the pandemic the landlord continued to ensure that it meet its statutory obligations in relation to health and safety, specifically by undertaking weekly fire tests.
  3. While lift B was out of service, downtime of lift A was kept to minimum as any faults were responded to promptly.

Recommendations

  1. The landlord should ask the representative to provide copies of the statements referred to at paragraph 12 of this determination. On receipt of these the landlord should contact the residents involved to discuss any additional support that can be provided to them.
  2. The landlord should write to all resident to provide an update on its current arrangements for the scheme, taking into account the latest advice from the Government on easing restrictions.  This should include an update on face-to-face support visits and the use of the communal areas.