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Onward Homes Limited (202224533)

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REPORT

COMPLAINT 202224533

Onward Group Limited

2 November 2023

 

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 the landlord’s response to the resident’s.
    1. Request for information regarding asbestos in her property and the communal area of her building.
    2. Report of block drains and a damaged manhole cover.

Background

  1. The resident is a secure tenant of the landlord. The landlord is the freeholder of the property, which is a flat within a building comprised of similar properties.
  2. The resident raised a formal complaint with the landlord on 14 September 2022. The resident was unhappy that the landlord had not informed residents about asbestos removal from the estate. The resident advised the landlord’s operative had attended a neighbouring property to remove asbestos. She advised there was the same asbestos in her flat, which was she stated was confirmed by the landlord’s operative. The resident said she not been made aware of the works to remove the asbestos from her property and needed time to move items from her property. The resident advised this had been recommended by a previous asbestos report from March 2016. The resident also raised concerns about a dangerous manhole cover on the estate. The resident advised that the landlord had erected an orange netting fence around the manhole, which was an eyesore and wanted the landlord to resolve this matter.
  3. The landlord responded to this on 29 September 2022. The landlord confirmed that there was no current asbestos report for the resident’s property but it understood that the property is low risk based on other properties on this estate. The landlord advised the resident could request a survey to confirm this and advised the resident how this request could be made. The landlord advised that it was unable to share information regarding another address due to GDPR. However, it confirmed that works to remove asbestos were carried out following repairs that had been completed in her neighbour’s property which had disturbed the asbestos. This may have exposed fibres from the asbestos and due to this the landlord arranged for the asbestos to be removed.
  4. The landlord confirmed it had attended on 21 June 2022 following reports of the manhole becoming blocked and overflowing. The landlord found the drain to be full of debris and removed as much of this as possible. The landlord confirmed a temporary security fence was erected, with the drain cover being boarded over. This was installed to prevent anyone from approaching the area, and to remove the risk of someone tripping or falling.
  5. The landlord advised it had arranged for a drainage specialist to attend on 6 July 2022 who cleared the remaining debris and noted the manhole cover and the frame both needed to be replaced. The landlord attended again on 2 September 2022 to further clear debris and had raised a further job for a pump to fully clear the buildup of earth, stones and other items that had caused the blockage. The landlord confirmed the resident’s complaint had not been upheld as the landlord had not identified any service failure.
  6. The resident escalated her complaint to stage 2 of the landlord’s complaints process on 3 October 2022. The resident advised that despite a number of visits, the landlord had failed to repair the drains. The resident requested a definitive date and the name of the contractor attending, advising this was raised as an emergency repair and should have been fixed within 24 hours. The resident advised the landlord it was a legal requirement for the landlord to keep asbestos records. The resident advised that a full asbestos survey had been completed for her property in 2016. The resident requested that the landlord share the name of the company that carried out the asbestos survey.
  7. The landlord provided a response to this on 15 November 2022. The landlord reiterated to the resident the action that had been taken to attempt to resolve the issues with the blocked drain, as set out in the stage 1 complaint response. The landlord noted that on 28 September 2022, it received a further report of the drain being blocked and arranged an emergency repair with the operative attending the same day to attempt to clear debris from the drain.
  8. The landlord reiterated that it had sought to obtain a pump to clear the excessive earth, stones, and debris, and confirmed this was to be carried out on 22 November 2022. The landlord confirmed that this was being actively managed by their repair specialist who would monitor this until the matter was resolved. The landlord confirmed that it had all necessary information to safely manage asbestos in the resident’s building.
  9. The landlord confirmed that the manhole cover was replaced on 23 November 2022, and the drain was fully repaired on 7 February 2023, the landlord noted that while the issue had seemed to be resolved, there had been a further issue in January 2023 due to roots in the drain which had caused blockages. There had been no further issues following this.
  10. The resident remains dissatisfied due to the length of time that the works took to complete and the eye-sore this caused. The resident also remained unhappy with the landlord not providing her with further information regarding the records of asbestos it had for her property and the block.

Assessment and findings

  1. The landlord’s asbestos management policy states that regulations regarding asbestos do not require the landlord to remove all asbestos when identified. By use of risk management, the landlord will manage asbestos containing materials (ACM’s) via responsible and practical means to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres. If the material is in a good condition that presents no immediate risks to health, is not subject to abrasion or deterioration, the material will be left undisturbed and recorded as “leave in situ and manage.” Periodic risk-based inspections will be undertaken on all domestic communal areas. The policy operates in line with the Health and Safety Executive and asbestos regulations. Residents are advised to contact the landlord if they have concerns about asbestos.
  2. A landlord’s primary obligations in relation to asbestos arise under Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004, Section 11 of the Landlord & Tenant Act 1985, and the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. The presence of damaged asbestos that could pose a risk to health is also capable of constituting a statutory nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Landlords are legally obliged to take reasonable steps to resolve issues which pose a statutory nuisance.
  3. There is no legal obligation for landlords to maintain a register of properties containing asbestos or to inform residents if asbestos is present in their home. Undamaged asbestos can often be left in situ as it poses minimal risk to health and the presence of asbestos in a domestic property does not alone constitute disrepair. However, if it is damaged or its condition has deteriorated, then the landlord should act to prevent disrepair from arising.
  4. The Housing Act 2004 requires all housing to be free from Category 1 hazards and the presence of asbestos is one of the 29 categories of potential hazards identified under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). The HHSRS guidance suggests landlords should take steps to identify any asbestos present and assess whether it is damaged or vulnerable to damage in the future.
  5. The landlord provided evidence that it had undertaken asbestos risk-based inspections in the communal area of the resident’s building. It has shared the most recent report from 25 March 2022 with this service. The report noted all areas where asbestos may be present were considered low risk and recommended that the landlord manage these in line with its own asbestos management plan. This demonstrates that the landlord had correctly ensured that it is monitoring areas where it is aware of the presence of asbestos to ensure that this is not posing a risk to residents.
  6. The resident had raised concern about the presence of asbestos, and it being removed from a neighbour’s property and the landlord failing to advise the residents in the building of this work taking place to allow them to prepare their own properties for this. It is clear from the landlord’s response that there had been no estate wide plan to carry out repair works, and that in this instance asbestos had been removed following repair works to a neighbour’s property. The landlord would not be expected to communicate this with the resident, and correctly advised it cannot share information with the resident about other properties due to GDPR.
  7. The landlord advised in its stage 2 complaint response that it had all necessary information to safely manage the asbestos present in the resident’s block. As indicated in the landlord’s asbestos management policy, the landlord should maintain updated records of all properties where asbestos may be present. While the resident had requested information regarding who had carried out asbestos surveys to the block, the landlord does not have an obligation to share a copy of the full asbestos report. It would have been reasonable for the landlord to have provided the resident with a summary of the report and action it was taking to manage this going forward. This would have given the resident greater reassurance on the action taken by the landlord regarding asbestos in the communal parts of the building. The landlord should provide this to the resident.
  8. The resident had advised in her formal complaint to the landlord that she had an asbestos report form 2016. The resident has sent this service extracts of the report which indicated a low-level presence of asbestos which should be regularly monitored. The evidence suggests the landlord had not received a copy of this report.
  9. The landlord confirmed that it did not hold current asbestos information in relation to the resident’s property at this time but was aware of the makeup of properties on the estate, which allowed it to manage the presence of asbestos throughout the estate. The landlord should ensure it has current and up to date information for any asbestos that may be present in the resident’s property, in line with its own asbestos management policy. This should be stored within the landlord’s asbestos register which will include information regarding the presence and location of asbestos within individual properties. By not having this, the landlord is not able to fully monitor and advise the resident regarding the presence of asbestos and how to correctly manage this.
  10. The landlord had offered to carry out an asbestos survey as part of its stage 1 complaint response, but the resident did not respond to this offer. The landlord should reiterate its offer to arrange for a survey to be conducted at the resident’s property to ensure it has up to date information regarding the resident’s address. The landlord will then be able to make the resident aware of where asbestos may be present to ensure the resident does not accidentally disturb these areas. This will assist the landlord and the resident in managing the presence of any asbestos within the resident’s property. This may provide the resident with greater assurances about the safety of her own property. Not having this information or being able to provide this information to the resident is unreasonable and may have caused her anxiety regarding the potential risks of asbestos within her property. The resident may also wish to raise this as a concern with the Health and Safety Executive if she feels the landlord is in breach of its obligations regarding asbestos management. The Health and Safety Executive monitor hazards in buildings and have the power to investigate to ensure that the landlord is operating in line with current legislation regarding this.
  11. The landlord could have taken the opportunity to explain its obligations regarding the presence of asbestos in its properties at an earlier stage in the complaints process. It would have been reasonable for the landlord to confirm that undisturbed asbestos will not usually require removal. The landlord may have also provided information and a clearer explanation of the legal and policy framework for managing asbestos at an earlier stage. This may have helped to manage the resident’s expectations as well as any concerns the resident had about the presence of asbestos.
  12. Due to this, there was service failure by the landlord in its handling of the resident’s request for information regarding asbestos within her property and the communal parts of the building. In line with this service’s published remedies guidance, which sets out our service’s approach to compensation, the landlord should offer the resident total compensation of £100. The Ombudsman may award amounts in this range when there was minor failure by the landlord in the service it provided, and it did not appropriately acknowledge this and/or fully put it right.

Reports of damaged manhole and blocked drains.

  1. The landlord’s customer charter sets out response times for repairs, which the landlord will aim to attend. These are:

a.  Emergency repairs will be attended within 4 hours.

b. Urgent repairs will be attended within 5 working days.

c. Routine repairs will be attended within 20 working days.

  1. The landlord had demonstrated that it had attended the initial visits to the site regarding the drains being blocked within its published timescales. The landlord attended emergency appointments on the same day in attempts to make safe the issue with the block drain and damaged manhole cover. The resident had raised concern that the drain repair had been raised as an emergency repair and it should have been completed within 24 hours. This service would expect the landlord to attend an emergency repair within its timescales set out in its repair policy. A landlord may not always be able to carry out a lasting repair at this time, but this service would expect where this is the case for the landlord to make the issue safe and raise follow on works to be completed at a later date in line with its timescales for routine repairs. the landlord had acted in dealing with this repair. in line with its repairs policy.
  2. The landlord established that the repair had been more complex than it had initially thought, which led to the landlord escalating this matter to a drainage specialist who attended to repair the issue. The drainage specialist recommended that the landlord obtain a pump to fully clear the drains of excessive earth, stones, and debris. It is clear there had been occasions where the landlord had thought the issue had been resolved, only for it to reoccur a few months later, with the landlord arranging further works to attempt to resolve these issues. The landlord confirmed that the manhole cover had been replaced on 23 November 2022 and the issues with the drain had been fully resolved by 7 February 2023. While this Service acknowledges these delays would have caused frustration for the resident, it is clear that the landlord had sought specialist advice regarding these matters. The landlord is entitled to rely on specialist advice regarding the repairs needed to resolve a particular issue. In some cases, it can take multiple attempts to resolve a repair issue as different methods need to be attempted. This is not necessarily an indication of service failure by the landlord. In this case, it is clear from the evidence that the landlord was making reasonable efforts to resolve the drainage issue and the delays in achieving this were outside the landlord’s control.
  3. The landlord had also ensured that the area was cordoned off during this time, in consideration of the wellbeing of its residents. The resident had expressed this was an eyesore. While we may agree this was unsightly, it was necessary for the landlord to safeguarding residents during the repair work, which as explained above took longer than expected due to unforeseen circumstances.
  4. The landlord should have kept the resident updated following her stage 2 complaint regarding the progress of the repair. This would have better allowed the landlord to reasonably manage the resident’s expectations regarding the repair works. This was a missed opportunity from the landlord but would not have affected the timescales for the work to be completed.
  5. Due to this, there is a finding of no maladministration by the landlord in its handling of the residents reports of the blocked drain and damaged manhole as it had acted in line with its repairs policy, and acted reasonably in how it managed this repair.

Determination

  1. In accordance with paragraph 52 of the Scheme, there was service failure by the landlord in respect of its handling of the resident’s request for information regarding asbestos in her property and the communal area of her building.
  2. In accordance with paragraph 52 of the Scheme, there was no maladministration by the landlord in respect of its handling of the resident’s report of a blocked drain and damaged manhole cover.

Orders

  1. The landlord is ordered to pay the resident £100 compensation for errors in its handling of her request for information regarding asbestos within her property and the communal area.
  2. The landlord should arrange an asbestos survey for the resident’s property and provide the resident with a summary of this report.
  3. The landlord is to confirm to this service that it has complied with the above orders within 28 days of this report.

Recommendations

  1. The landlord should provide the resident with a summary of the most recent asbestos report for the communal area of her building.