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Longhurst Group Limited (201906862)

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REPORT

COMPLAINT 201906862

Longhurst Group Limited

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 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 response to the resident’s reports of an infestation of mice at her property.
  2. The landlord’s associated complaint handling.

Background and summary of events

Background

  1. The resident is a secure tenant of the landlord, residing in a three-bedroom house.

Summary of Events

  1. The resident’s records confirmed that she had a discussion with the landlord’s contractor on 24 January 2019, reporting a possible infestation of mice at her property. The resident was informed that an appointment for this would have to be discussed with a manager in order to be booked and that she would be called back about this; however, she noted this was not the case as she did not receive a call back.
  2. The resident recorded that she therefore contacted the local authority’s environmental health department about the mice on 13 February 2019, and that they visited the property on 20 February 2019. The resident’s records confirmed that their report advised that “the property can be a fire hazard because mice have been known to chew wiring…and cause fires”.
  3. The resident’s records then confirmed that she arranged and paid twice for three private pest control visits prior to the landlord’s pest control company’s visits on 20 and 27 February 2019 and their return visit after three weeks, where they had laid bait prior to the return visit.
  4. On 30 April 2019, the resident wrote a stage one complaint to the landlord to request an urgent decant from her property due to the infestation of mice there. She stated the following:
  1. This had initially been reported to the landlord’s contractor on 24 January 2019. To address the issue herself, she had paid for private pest control as she did not realise at this point that the landlord was responsible for addressing this.
  2. The landlord’s pest control company had attended and suggested work to block the possible access points in the kitchen. Regarding the reported rodent activity in the loft, they suggested that the insulation be removed in order for access points to be identified. They needed to continue laying bait due to the level of rodent activity, as well as repair around a pipe and carry out a drain survey to address and identify further possible access points.
  3. The resident requested temporary housing from the landlord until the property was assessed and deemed habitable by the environmental health department, and that it consider a reduction in the rent for the cost incurred, as she was unable to pay for both a hotel and rent at the same time.
  4. The resident added that her and her son’s respective physical and mental ill-health, vulnerability and disabilities were being exacerbated by the mice infestation at the property, which was increasingly distressing for them.
  1. On 2 May 2019, the landlord’s records confirmed that it made a call to the resident in response to the stage one complaint. It agreed to pay for the nights that she had explained that she had already stayed in the hotel and extended this until the property was ready to occupy. It also arranged for the pest control company to visit the property on 7 May 2020.
  2. The landlord’s records confirmed that it received an update from the pest control company following the above visit to the resident’s property on 7 May 2020, highlighting the following:
  1. They had replaced bait throughout the property, and more visits were required due to the level of infestation.
  2. The holes under the kitchen units needed to be repaired.
  3. The loft insulation needed to be removed in order to locate any potential access points.
  4. The resident had requested a timescale for the completion of the work; however, they were “unable to answer this until the requested works are completed”.
  1. On 17 May 2019, the landlord noted that the repair work to the resident’s kitchen was completed, which involved the blocking up of holes under the kitchen units and sanitising the area. In respect of the loft, it had removed the insulation, sanitised and pest proofed the area. On 20 May 2020, the resident returned to the property after the kitchen units were sanitised. The outstanding works item left to complete was to fit new loft insulation, with followup appointments required by the pest control company.
  2. On 23 May 2019, the landlord’s records confirmed that it had found service failure in its handling of the mice infestation. The pest control company was found to be at fault, and it had requested that its contractor use an alternative pest control company. The landlord also found that its contractor should have acted on the recommendations of the report at an earlier stage, for which it had reimbursed the resident’s decant costs, reiterated that an alternative pest control company be used, and was discussing the action that should be taken when pest infestations were reported to ensure appropriate responses.
  3. On 14 June 2019, the landlord visited the property to fit the new insulation, but it found evidence of rodent activity and was therefore unable to complete the required work. However, the pest control company was unable to find any evidence of such.
  4. On 3 July 2019, the landlord’s contractor attended the property to lay the new loft insulation; however, two dead mice were found meaning that they were unable to carry out the work. As a result, this was rescheduled to 19 July 2019.
  5. On 3 July 2019, the resident emailed the landlord to advise that she had not received a written response to her stage one complaint from 30 April 2019 onwards and wanted to escalate the complaint to the final stage of its complaints procedure on the advice of this Service. Her desired outcome was for a prompt response in resolving this matter, and compensation for damages to her belongings, her kitchen floor, for financial losses incurred, for the inconvenience caused, and the additional cost and stress. The resident requested a copy of the landlord’s complaints and compensation policies, in addition to a timeframe for the matter to be resolved.
  6. On 5 July 2019, the landlord visited the property to fit the new loft insulation, but it found further evidence of rodent activity and was therefore unable to complete the required work.
  7. On 8 July 2019, the landlord requested an update from its contractor regarding the outstanding work to the resident’s property, and it was informed on 2 July 2019 that the treatment to eradicate the pests had been completed, and that they were due to return on 19 July 2019. This was to complete the insulation works, as well as the repairs in the kitchen to the plaster and kitchen units following the rodents.
  8. On 22 July 2019, the landlord requested a further update from its contractor and a copy of the most recent pest control report, as this was a formal complaint.
  9. On 3 September 2019, the landlord’s records confirmed that it had a discussion with the resident, where the following points were made:
  1. The resident was unhappy as she had received contact from the landlord suggesting that the work may have been completed. The resident questioned the communications between the landlord and its contractor, given that during their last visit they had reported further evidence of the mice infestation in her loft and so did not complete the insulation work there.
  2. An attempt had been made to arrange a new loft insulation appointment; however, because the pest control company had not yet been out to inspect the property, the resident had declined the appointment on that basis. The resident also highlighted that she had taken seven days off work to accommodate appointments, and that all new appointments would need to be around her work commitments.

18. The landlord’s records confirmed that it had attempted to understand the reasons for the delay in its completion between July and September 2019. It had been identified that the pest control company were unreliable, and as a result the landlord’s contractor had sent the case to another pest control company, which had considered the evidence to be historical, but had laid bait to double check. No further evidence was found, and although attempts were made to schedule in a date to complete the works, this took longer than expected.

  1. On 9 September 2019, the resident emailed the landlord to request a response from it to her earlier email of 12 August 2019, which is summarised below:
  1. The resident thanked the landlord for providing a copy of its decant policy, which was received “nearly three months after the decant”. As a result, she did not retain receipts of the expenses that she and her son had incurred while decanted in hotel accommodation.
  2. She requested £50 per day for 14 days totalling £700 for her and her son to cover the cost of three meals per day, and laundry costs of £14 per week equating to £42, for which she did not have receipts, as well as her invoiced pest control fees of £299 and the cost of an electric mouse of £62.88.
  1. On 10 October 2019, the landlord wrote to the resident to apologise for the shortfall in service received by the resident from it. It confirmed that the new pest control company would be attending her property on 15 October 2019, and if the loft was clear they could arrange for it to be cleaned and new insulation laid.
  2. The resident then wrote to the landlord to confirm that the repair was completed on 1 November 2019, and that the loft was now fully insulated.
  3. On 5 November 2019, the landlord provided its final stage written complaint response to the resident, and confirmed the following:
  1. It had attended to the resident’s reports of an infestation at her property from February 2019 by arranging for a pest control company to attend this. They had attended within the agreed timescale, but due to the level of infestation “the matter remained ongoing”.
  2. When the landlord was made aware on 2 May 2019 that the resident was staying in hotel accommodation due to the infestation, it had agreed to cover the cost of this.
  3. To address the infestation in the kitchen, it had removed the kitchen units, blocked up the holes, replaced the kitchen worktops and sanitised the area, with the resident able to move back into her property on 20 May 2019.
  4. It confirmed that the loft insulation was replaced on 1 November 2019, and that followup visits would be required by the pest control company to ensure that the infestation remained under control.
  5. It apologised to the resident for the distress and inconvenience that this had caused to her and her family. It also confirmed that, as a result of this complaint, it would be sourcing an alternative pest control company to ensure that all work was accurately recorded and accessible to it.
  6. It advised that it had made an award of £250 compensation to the resident for the distress and inconvenience caused from it not completing the work sooner, in addition to the outofpocket decant expenses of £1,053.88, resulting in a total compensation offer of £1,303.88, which it would send out to her by cheque within 21 days.
  1. The resident subsequently reported to us that she did not receive the above compensation cheque, resulting in this Service writing to the landlord on 2 January 2020 to request that it contact the resident about this within 21 days.
  2. On 20 November 2020, the resident contacted this Service to request our consideration of the complaint. She explained that it was over 12 months old; however, she reported that the compensation payment was delayed by the landlord and that she had experienced four bereavements within the family, which had delayed her complaint to us.

Assessment and findings

Mouse infestation

  1. As per the landlord’s repairs and maintenance policy, in respect of infestations of mice, the landlord is responsible for repairs in properties with vulnerable tenants.
  2. The same policy also outlines a 21-day target for completion of appointed repairs, “which do not put the health, safety or security of a [resident] at risk or cause harm to the structure of the property and are repairs that [residents] can reasonably live with for a period of time”.
  3. The landlords policies do not contain specific timescales for the completion of work following an infestation of mice. Under such circumstances, it would be expected that the landlord would provide the resident with timescales for the completion of the work, and evidence of its continued monitoring of the matter.
  4. Following the reports of an infestation of mice at the resident’s property from 24 January 2019 onwards, the landlord arranged for the inspection of the property from 20 February 2019 onwards. This subsequently identified repairs in the kitchen which were possible access points for the mice and so it arranged for the repair work to be completed for this on 17 May 2019. This was completed within the landlord’s 21-day target for such repairs following the resident’s stage one complaint about this on 30 April 2019.
  5. The infestation in the loft proved more challenging to address, with the continued evidence of mice delaying the completion of the work from at least 30 April to 1 November 2019. Under the circumstances, the landlord would be expected to ensure that progress was being made to address the resident’s concerns and to ensure that she was kept informed about this.
  6. The landlord’s records evidenced that it had acted reasonably in following up on the scheduled appointments with its contractor during July and August 2019 by requesting progress updates from them, including on 8 and 22 July 2019. The landlord identified that there were issues with resolving the loft infestation from this, and it therefore instructed a different pest control company to carry out the required work from at least 23 May 2019 onwards, which was completed on 1 November 2019 and confirmed in the landlord’s final response dated 5 November 2019.
  7. During the period of 30 April to 20 May 2019 the resident was staying in hotel accommodation paid for by the landlord.
  8. The landlord’s tenant management policy confirms that:Should the [resident] be required to move out of their home due to work identified to improve, repair or maintain the building then removal and other reasonable associated costs will be paid for in line with [its] Compensation Policy”.
  9. The resident did not have a copy of the landlord’s decant policy while in hotel accommodation, and therefore she did not keep receipts for the costs that she had incurred while there. She therefore compiled a list of reimbursements that she had felt was reasonable for this and her pest control costs totalling £1,103.88, and submitted this to the landlord by email on 12 August 2019. This included £50 per day for food for her and her son.
  10. The landlord paid all of the items listed by the resident, with the exception of £50. It was reasonable that the landlord did not award this additional £50 for food, however, as the resident moved back into the property on the last day of her hotel stay on 20 May 2019, where she would have the full use of her kitchen.
  11. In conclusion, the landlord acted reasonably in agreeing to pay the costs requested by the resident that she incurred while staying in hotel accommodation and in paying for her own pest control while it had not yet resolved the infestation at the property. This was proportionate to recognise all of the additional costs that she had incurred during this period, which was in accordance with its obligation to pay her reasonable associated costs from this under its tenancy management policy.
  12. Moreover, the landlord followed its compensation procedure by recognising the impact of its service failure in not resolving the pest infestation at the property sooner on the resident and her family by awarding her a further £250 compensation for their distress and inconvenience caused by this on 5 November 2019. This was proportionate to recognise the impact on them, as its procedure recommended that it offer compensation in this range for failures to meet its service standards, distress, inconvenience, and delays in getting matters resolved.
  13. The landlord’s compensation procedure also details that it will not make compensation payments for something which could not be predicted…In these circumstances, the resident needs to claim on their contents insurance. The compensation policy is not intended to replace or compensate residents who do not have contents insurance…or claims which are covered by our liability insurance. These will be dealt with by our insurance company.
  14. It is acknowledged that the resident requested compensation for the damage to her belongings as a result of the infestation of mice at her property. However, as this is could not be predicted and may have been covered by contents insurance, if she had this, or by the landlord’s liability insurance, it was not obliged by its compensation procedure to compensate her for this. As such, the landlord has been recommended below to contact the resident to confirm whether she can make a claim against its liability insurance, if she is unable to do so against her contents insurance, for the damage incurred.

Complaint handling

  1. As per the landlord’s complaints policy, it will contact the resident within two working days to discuss the complaint. It further advises that it will notify the resident of the outcome of the complaint within a maximum of ten working days, which it is permitted to extend to a maximum of 20 working days in exceptional circumstances.
  2. The landlord’s compensation procedure outlines payments between £50 and £250 where the service failure had an impact on the resident, but may not have significantly affected the overall outcome for the resident. Examples of this include repeated failures to reply to letters or return phone calls and failure to meet service standards for actions and responses but where the failure had no significant impact.
  3. In response to the residents stage one complaint to the landlord on 30 April 2019, it contacted the resident within the complaints policy’s two-day target for it to do so on 2 May 2019. However, it did not provide a written response to the complaint, which was highlighted by the resident in her complaint escalation letter to it dated 3 July 2019. This Service has also seen no evidence of a response to this letter or to the original complaint until the final stage complaint response of 5 November 2019, which was 112 working days later than the policy’s maximum response timescale in exceptional circumstances.
  4. The landlord nevertheless offered the resident £250 compensation on 5 November 2019 for the distress and inconvenience caused to her, this being the maximum award for such complaints and in line with its compensation procedure as outlined above at paragraph 40. This was therefore also proportionate to recognise the impact of its 112-working-day delay in responding to her stage one complaint on her and any unnecessary additional time and trouble that she incurred as a result of this. Although the landlord has additionally been recommended below to review its staff’s training needs in relation to their application of its complaints policy, which is in order to seek to prevent a recurrence of its above complaint handling delay in the future.

Determination (decision)

  1. In accordance with paragraph 55(b) of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, the landlord has offered redress to the resident prior to investigation which, in the Ombudsman’s opinion, resolves the complaint about its response to her reports of an infestation of mice at her property satisfactorily.
  2. In accordance with paragraph 55(b) of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, the landlord has offered redress to the resident prior to investigation which, in the Ombudsman’s opinion, resolves the complaint about its complaint handling satisfactorily.

Reasons

  1. The landlord acted on the reports of an infestation of mice at the resident’s property and arranged for a pest control company to address the issue. When it was advised that the resident could no longer live at the property, it paid for hotel accommodation and provided reasonable reimbursements for the cost of this and of private pest control, as requested by the resident. Although the infestation in the loft took longer than expected to be resolved, it remedied this with proportionate compensation in recognition of the impact of this.
  2. The landlord identified failings with the pest control company and stopped using them, demonstrating a desire to address the issue for the resident.
  3. There were failings in the landlord’s communication to the resident about her formal complaint. It nevertheless evidenced that it investigated the resident’s concerns, and that it recognised and offered reasonable compensation for its service failures. 

Recommendations

  1. It is recommended that the landlord:
    1. Contact the resident to confirm whether she can make a claim against its liability insurance, if she is unable to do so against her contents insurance, for the damage incurred to her belongings as a result of the mice infestation.
    2. Review its staff training needs in relation to their application of its complaints procedure in order to seek to prevent a recurrence of its complaint handling delay in the resident’s case in the future. This should include consideration of The Housing Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code at https://www.housing-ombudsman.org.uk/landlords-info/complaint-handling-code/ and the completion of this Service’s free online dispute resolution training for landlords at https://www.housing-ombudsman.org.uk/landlords-info/e-learning/, if this has not been done recently.
  2. The landlord should contact this Service within four weeks to confirm whether it will follow the above recommendations.
  3. The Ombudsman accepts that, because of the present restrictions due to the corona virus pandemic, the timing of the above actions will depend on what is reasonable in the light of Government guidance regarding the health of the resident and of the landlord’s staff.