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London Borough of Hackney (202016460)

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COMPLAINT 202016460

London Borough of Hackney

20 October 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 no longer include water rates in rent.
    2. The level of rent and the amount of the rent increase.
    3. The landlord’s complaint handling.


  1. What we can and cannot consider is called the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. This is governed by the Housing Ombudsman Scheme. When a complaint is brought to the Ombudsman, we must consider all the circumstances of the case as there are sometimes reasons why a complaint will not be investigated.
  2. After carefully considering all the evidence, in accordance with paragraph 39e of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme (the Scheme), the following aspect of the complaint is outside of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.

Complaint b

  1. Our Service is unable to investigate complaints which, in the Ombudsman’s opinion, concerning the level of rent or service charge, or the amount of the rent or service charge increase.
  2. Paragraph 39 (g) of the Scheme states that. “The Ombudsman will not investigate complaints which, in the Ombudsman’s opinion: concern the level of rent or service charge or the amount of the rent or service charge increase.”
  3. Paragraph 39(i) of the Scheme states thatThe Ombudsman will not investigate complaints which, in the Ombudsman’s opinion: concern matters where the Ombudsman considers it quicker, fairer, more reasonable or more effective to seek a remedy through the courts, a designated person, other tribunal or procedure.”
  4. Complaints about the level of rent and its increase fall more properly within the jurisdiction of the First Tier Property Tribunal. Therefore, the focus of our investigation will cover the landlord’s response to the resident’s dissatisfaction and enquiries about the water charges no longer being included as part of the rent amount and the landlord’s complaint handling.

Background and summary of events

  1. The resident is a secure tenant of the property which is owned by a local council (the landlord) and rents a one bedroom flat.
  2. On 7 April 2021 the resident contacted this Service and explained that he raised a complaint two weeks prior, but the landlord had not responded. The resident stated that he was unhappy with his landlord’s decision to no longer include water rates in his rent. He asserted that this change meant he had to pay the water supplier directly, which was more expensive. 
  3. This Service advised the resident to wait ten working days and that if he did not receive a response or was unhappy with the response received, he should get back in contact. 
  4. On 14 April 2021, the resident contacted this Service and explained that he still had not received a response. On the same day, this Service sent an email to the landlord setting out the customer details and his complaint points and requested that the landlord respond within its complaint procedure deadlines.
  5. The resident continued to contact this Service throughout April and May 2021 about the lack of response from his landlord. On 14 May 2021, this Service sent a further email and asked the landlord to respond to the complaint within five working days. The landlord acknowledged this request on 19 May 2021; however, the resident contacted this Service again on 27 May 2021 and stated that he still had not received a response.
  6.  On 19 May 2021, the resident informed this Service that he made a new complaint about his rent charges, he asserted that the rent he was paying for a one-bedroom flat was too high. This Service advised the resident that because this was a new complaint the landlord would have ten working days to respond.
  7. On 2 June 2021, the landlord contacted this Service and requested a contact number or email address for the resident because it was unable to access this information due to a cyber-attack that took place in October 2020. After speaking with the resident, this Service provided the landlord with two contact numbers on 18 June 2021.
  8. On 22 June 2021 the landlord issued its stage 1 response as follows: –
    1. It apologised for the delay in responding to the complaint and explained that it was unable to locate current contact details for the resident on its system following a recent cyber-attack. It then went on to explain that it had to contact this Service to get an up-to-date number to discuss his complaint.
    2. It confirmed that up until the last financial year, the charge for his water and waste was paid directly to the landlord and then it paid the supplier for this Service.
    3. It explained that this arrangement changed from April 2021 when it stopped charging him, and instead the supplier started to charge him directly. And that it did not decide to make the change, but the supplier had provided written notice informing it of the termination of the previous agreement in September 2020.
    4. It stated that the supplier made the change to have direct relationship with customers, allowing it to offer additional support to vulnerable customers and offer alternative tariffs where appropriate.
    5. It explained that he would not be able to optout of the transition to direct billing and his first direct payment to the supplier was due in April 2021.
    6. It asserted that it wrote to all residents in early December 2020 informing them of these changes.
    7. It acknowledged that having a new bill could be worrying and suggested that the resident contact the supplier if he was struggling to pay it.
    8. It set out that the resident’s water rates had not increased because of the change, but there had been an annual increase of 4.6% in the amount the supplier was charging in 2021/22. It went on to explain that it would have applied the same increase had it continued to collect the water rate on behalf of the supplier.
    9. It also explained that the monthly charge may seem higher because the supplier splits the bill into 11 monthly instalments from May 2021 instead of 12 Instalments from April 2021.
  9. On 12 July 2021, the resident escalated his complaint to stage 2. He asserted that the landlord was responsible for the change and that, as a result, it had become more difficult for him to pay his water rates.  He also expressed disappointment as the landlord failed to respond to his complaint about his rent being too high.
  10. On 16 July 2021, the landlord issued its stage 2 response as follows: –
    1. It set out its stage one response and confirmed that it could not find fault concerning the cost of the water bills and the supplier’s payment methodology as it was not a matter decided by the landlord.
    2. It explained that the supplier made a business decision to change the way all residents were billed, and it had no choice over it.
    3. It reiterated that there was an annual rise levied by the supplier, of 4.6%, but there were no other increases to the water rates.
    4. It reiterated that if the resident required help paying his bill, he should contact the supplier directly as it may be able to help and provided a contact number and email for this purpose.
    5. It apologised for not responding to the resident’s complaint about rent in its stage 1 response.
    6. It confirmed that during a meeting in January 2021, it was decided that the rents in 2021/22 would increase by 1.5% from April 2021 and there would be an increase in block cleaning and estate cleaning to reflect the cost of the service and there would be a new charge applied in April 2021 for CCTV monitoring.
    7. It asserted that the residents claim that the rent was too high was based on his income and circumstances so it suggested if he was having difficulty paying his rent, he should contact income services to discuss any assistance he might need.

Assessment and findings 

  1. The landlord and the water supplier had an Agreement for the Payment of Charges for Water Services (“the Agreement”), that allowed either party to terminate the agreement by giving a minimum of six months written notice to the other. On 1 September 2020 the supplier provided this notice for the agreement to be terminated with effect from 31 March 2021.
  2. The supplier initially informed the landlord of the change in 2019 as it began ending contracts for all local authorities and housing associations. The arrangement with the landlord was due to end in April 2020 but was amended to April 2021.
  3. The supplier terminated the agreement because it wanted to have a direct relationship with as many customers as possible so it could offer additional support to vulnerable customers and offer alternative tariffs where appropriate. Under the agreement held with the supplier the landlord was unable to opt out of the change once notice had been provided.
  4. The landlord wrote to all residents in December 2020 and informed them of the ‘important’ change, setting out:
    1. What was happening
    2. Why it was happening
    3. When it was happening
    4. How it would affect the residents
  5. Whilst the resident asserts that his water bill is now higher than prior to the change in the payment method, the landlord has no power to affect this. The supplier had always set the water rates, and any decision it makes to reduce or increase these are independent. Because of this, any complaints about charges or difficulty paying should be directed to the supplier.
  6. The landlord has provided evidence that shows it did not decide to no longer include water rates in rent, but the supplier made this decision. Appropriately, the landlord gave reasonable notice of the change and the information it supplied around the change was instructive and answered any general questions residents may have. Because of this, this Service finds that the landlord acted reasonably in handling the change of the payment method for the water rates.
  7. The landlord’s complaints procedure has two stages, complaints at both stages should be acknowledged within five days of receipt. Stage one complaints should be responded to within ten working days of the complaint, and stage two complaints within 20 working days.
  8. The landlord did not issue its stage one response within 10 days of the resident’s complaint. The landlord explained that this was because of a previous cyber – attack but, it should have requested the resident’s contact details from this Service sooner, given the amount of time that had passed since the resident’s initial complaint. Throughout April and May 2021, the landlord failed to respond to the resident and this Service.
  9. This Service acknowledges that the landlord has made a concerted effort to acknowledge and address all the issues raised by the resident through the operation of the complaints process. But this Service is not satisfied that an apology adequately addressed the identified service failings with regards to its response times. Because of this, this Service considers that it would have been reasonable for the landlord to have offered the resident compensation for the identified shortcomings.



Determination (decision)

  1. In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Scheme, there was no maladministration by the landlord in respect of its decision to no longer include water rates in rent.
  2. In accordance with paragraph 39 (g) and (i) the complaint about the level of rent and its increase falls outside of the Ombudsman jurisdiction
  3. In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was service failure in the landlord’s complaint handling.


  1. The decision to no longer include water rates in the rent was not made by the landlord.
  2. The landlord provided sufficient information about the water provider’s decision and correctly highlighted the support available to the resident if he was struggling to pay his bills.
  3. There were mitigating circumstances around the amount of time taken for the landlord to contact the resident, but it should have requested for his contacts much sooner and, thus, would have been able to acknowledge and respond to the complaint earlier than it did.


  1. Within four weeks of the date of this determination, the landlord should pay the resident £50 in compensation for the delay in responding to the formal complaint.