Sanctuary Housing Association
4 August 2023
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 leaseholder’s complaint is about the landlord’s response to her concerns about:
- Communal repairs.
- Communal service provision.
- The Ombudsman will also consider the landlord’s complaint handling.
- The resident leases her flat (‘the property’) from the landlord, the freeholder of the building. The evidence provided by the landlord indicates that her lease commenced in 2018. The landlord has confirmed that it previously responded to a complaint in relation to communal issues, culminating in a July 2021 offer of £500 compensation.
- In October 2021, the landlord emailed the resident apologising for delays to external slab repairs and external car park lights. The resident said that some slab repairs remained outstanding and stated further that there had been a long delay of about four months in repairing garden security lights, which had been out of service since 18 June 2021. On 25 November 2021, the resident sent an email to the landlord expressing her dissatisfaction at the outstanding repairs and a service charge increase. She wanted a service charge refund for communal services, which she said the landlord had not provided.
- On 2 December 2021, the resident made a formal complaint to the landlord. She stated that it had been nine months since she last spoke to her housing officer about the outstanding repairs, including the corridor ceiling, car park lights, guttering, garden security lights, and the quality of cleaning in the block. She also said that she continued to be overcharged every year for services the landlord was not providing, with the building in a continuously poor condition.
- On 15 December 2021, the landlord gave its stage one response. It stated that its contractor would attend to complete guttering works and that it had sent the work to its repairs team to monitor. Regarding the cleaning, it said that its estate supervisor would ensure the cleaning was done to expected standards. Regarding the external lights, it said that it had raised a works order on 26 July 2021 and sent this to its external contractor. The contractor had issues gaining access to the site, though had now sent a quote for the works, which was awaiting approval. The landlord said it would continue to monitor this until the works were raised. The service charge issue had been sent to its housing team to investigate. It apologised to the resident for the repair delays.
- On 25 March 2022, the resident requested escalation of her complaint. She wanted compensation for the inconvenience caused due to the repair delays. She also complained about the time she had spent sending emails because it was almost impossible to speak to the landlord. She also raised the issue of the service charge increase.
- On 26 April 2022, the landlord gave its stage two response. It apologised that it could not establish if repairs remained outstanding due to its unclear records. It acknowledged that its stage one response did not fully address her complaint, which it upheld. It awarded a total of £300 compensation – £250 for time, trouble inconvenience, repair delays and unclear records and £50 for its complaint handling. It, however, did not respond to the issue of the levels of service charge as it stated its housing team dealt with this. The resident remained dissatisfied with the landlord’s response and progressed the case to the Ombudsman.
Assessment and findings
Scope of Investigation and jurisdiction
- The resident’s complaint included her concerns about the level of service charges and specifically the level of a service charge increase that she received. In her view, the standard of service provision, including the landlord’s repairs/maintenance service, did not warrant the level of charges she was required to pay.
- In accordance with paragraph 42 (e) of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, the Ombudsman will not normally consider complaints about the level of a service charge, nor the level of a service charge increase as such matters are more appropriately handled by the First Tier Tribunal (Property Chamber).
- It is noted that the landlord’s final complaint response confirmed that the resident’s concerns about service charges for utility usage would not be investigated as part of its complaints process. It said that the resident could expect contact from the housing team to go through this any other service charge concerns.
- This further contact was provided as agreed, with the resident’s housing officer speaking to the resident on 6 May 2022. The notes from this discussion indicate that the housing officer had explained that unforeseen major expenses had resulted from works and that these had been passed on to residents. The housing officer also said that they would look into a possible rebate for communal electricity costs, though this would likely prove difficult.
- The landlord response to the level of service charge issues did not satisfy the resident as she continued to question the costs she was being asked to pay. However, the landlord’s complaint process confirmed that this aspect of the complaint sat outside of its complaints process and the tribunal is a more appropriate body as it has the authority to make a binding judgement about the level of charges. As such, this aspect of the complaint is not within the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. Instead, this investigation shall focus on the landlord’s response to the resident’s reports about communal repairs and service provision.
- The leaseholder had made a previous complaint to the landlord in respect of communal issues, with a response dated July 2021 offering compensation for acknowledged service failures. The details of this complaint were not available to this investigation, however, as the complaint has not been brought within the formal remit of this Service, it has not been investigated here. The complaint under investigation here relates to the complaint raised by the resident with the landlord in December 2021, culminating in its April 2022 final response.
The landlord’s response to the leaseholder’s concerns about communal repairs in her block:
- The landlord sent the Ombudsman a copy of its repair and maintenance policy which is silent on timescales for the completion of repairs. However, its website states that the repair timescale for emergency repairs is 24 hours, routine repairs is 45 days and for major and planned repairs, 90 days. According to the landlord’s website guttering and lighting repairs are considered routine repairs.
- The landlord’s Homeowners Handbook confirms that repair responsibilities are confirmed within individual leases, with the landlord generally being responsible for structure and exterior of the property, together with communal areas. The handbook also confirms that the landlord will arrange a “programme of redecoration and associated minor repairs at each of our blocks of flats”.
- It is clear that the decoration of the corridor ceiling outside the property was one of the issues responded to by the landlord in the previous complaint, which culminated in an offer of compensation to the resident in July 2021. The specifics of this complaint are unknown though evidence available to the investigation indicates that works were completed to the ceiling and the area was then redecorated, leaving the remainder of the ceiling unpainted. Such an approach would be reasonable, given that landlords are generally required to redecorate areas affected by repair works. In any case, the resident raised further concerns about the corridor ceiling in the communal block in her formal complaint of 2 December 2021, reporting that the ceiling remained unpainted.
- The landlord acknowledged in its final response that the ceiling required further decoration, for which it apologised; it also said that this had been raised as a works order. However, review of the evidence indicates that in fact the surveyor that identified the need to carry out further redecoration works to the ceiling had suggested that these works be added to the next cyclical programme of redecoration works, rather than as a specific works item to be raised and completed at that point.
- The landlord’s poor communication here resulted in an expectation on the resident’s part that these works would be completed within a short timeframe, when in fact it would not be until cyclical works took place, with no specific timeframe available for these works. This represented a failure to manage the resident’s expectations effectively.
- The resident’s more recent correspondence indicates that these ceiling decoration works remain outstanding. In the circumstances, it would now be reasonable for the landlord to provide her with this clarity, if it remains the case that the works remain outstanding. An order has therefore been included below to ensure that the landlord provides the expected timescale for these works.
- The resident raised the guttering as a concern on 25 November 2021, stating that guttering works remained outstanding and that this had been reported “a few months ago”. In her formal complaint of 2 December 2021, she also expressed her concern that these works remained outstanding and a possible health impact on residents.
- The landlord’s stage one response said that it had raised a job for the guttering works on 8 December 2021. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that the landlord acknowledged this issue was its responsibility to resolve; it is also reasonable to conclude that it was the resident’s complaint that prompted the landlord to take action by raising the works. Unfortunately, the available records do not enable a definitive conclusion as to when this issue was first reported. In the absence of any contradictory evidence however, it is reasonable to rely on the residents statement that the issue had been ongoing for several months prior to her complaint of December 2021.
- Having raised the job to complete works, the landlord subsequently acknowledged that its “unclear” records meant that it was unable to confirm whether or when these works were completed. There is evidence of a further inspection on 26 January 2022, during which it was noted that some guttering works had taken place. The inspection also identified that a new issue (loose pipework) required resolution and that a small area of guttering to the front elevation of the building remained outstanding. These works were raised on the same date, however it is not known when they were completed.
- It was not until the landlord’s complaint co-ordinator was investigating the stage two complaint that it was ascertained that the front elevation works had been completed. It was appropriate that the landlord acknowledged its poor record keeping on this issue, and reasonable that this was factored into its offer of compensation. Ensuring that an audit trail is retained of all works, including those completed by contractors, is an essential aspect of a landlord’s overall service delivery.
- A further issue was identified during the landlord’s 26 April 2022 inspection of the guttering, albeit a minor one relating to a loose connection. It is not known if this minor issue was then addressed, however, it is at least to be commended that the landlord arranged for this inspection to obtain a clear picture of where things stood. Given that the April 2022 survey identified no significant issues with the guttering, the Ombudsman is satisfied that this issue was resolved by the completion of the landlord complaints process. In all the circumstances however, it took too long to get to this stage, with the resident clearly frustrated by its inability to manage the situation.
–Garden security light repairs
- The resident’s complaint of December 2021 stated the landlord had replaced the lights on 18 June 2021, but they had been off since then, though she expected the landlord would still charge for any electricity costs. In response, the landlord confirmed that it had replaced the lights in June 2021 but it could not confirm whether they were operational. It is of significant concern that the landlord’s records again were insufficient to confirm whether or not something had been resolved.
- It was appropriate for the landlord to apologise for any inconvenience caused. In addition, it is also noted that the resident’s housing officer discussed this issue with the resident following the completion of the complaints process. It was acknowledged at that point that these lights were not working for at least six months, with the repairs team unable to confirm when the works were completed.
- In all the circumstances, the landlord’s response on this issue demonstrated further concerns with its communal repairs service, with poor communication and inadequate record keeping contributing to a delay in resolving the issue and significant frustration for the resident.
-Communal repairs – conclusion
- The landlord acknowledged that its record-keeping failures had contributed to its inability to complete communal repairs within reasonable timescales. In addition, the Ombudsman finds that its communication on these issues was poor throughout, despite the resident’s continued attempts to obtain clarity and reassurance that outstanding works would take place.
- The landlord paid the resident £300 in compensation following the completion of the complaints process. This amount included an amount of £250 in relation to time and trouble, overall inconvenience and repair delays. It is important that a landlord is able to identify its specific failures and that it offers compensation in accordance with each of these failures, rather than grouping together failures and offering a lump sum. This provides clarity to the resident and provides reassurance that the landlord has fully understood the extent of each individual failure.
- In this case, the landlord has not been able to demonstrate that its apologies and offer of compensation did enough to put things right for the resident in relation to the overall failures with its response to her reports about communal repairs. In all the circumstances of the case, the Ombudsman considers an amount of compensation of £450 would be appropriate for this aspect of the case, in accordance with the Ombudsman’s remedies guidance for cases involving maladministration.
Communal service provision
- The resident had complained about the cleaning standards in the property. In its stage two response, the landlord stated that quality control checks were undertaken, and except for a brief period (during staff absence), they were satisfied that the works were completed to the expected standard and that it would carry out a monthly check henceforth. It also said that it would display cleaning specification details on site for the residents’ attention.
- The Ombudsman cannot determine if the cleaning standards are of a sufficient standard at the building, however the landlord’s response to the complaint on the issue can be assessed. In this respect the landlord investigated the issue, identified that services had been lacking for a brief period but that overall it was satisfied with the level of service provision; it also put systems in place to ensure that standards were maintained and that this was transparent to residents through the addition of cleaning specification details which would be advertised around the building.
- In addition, it Is noted that the landlord’s housing officer included the cleaning service in the discussion he had with the resident on 6 May 2022. This discussion confirmed that the cleaning specification would be displayed on 9 May and also provided further details about window washing. In all the circumstances of the case, the Ombudsman is satisfied with the landlord’s response on this issue. By consequence a determination of no maladministration has been identified.
- There were also failings in the landlord’s complaint handling. In its stage one response, it did not address the ceiling repairs. This was not in keeping with paragraph 3.3.6 of its complaint policy which states what must be considered as part of the complaint. It did not consider timescales for the resolution of actions, whether the complaint was upheld, partially upheld or not, and how the customer could escalate their complaint if they were dissatisfied.
- In its stage two response, the landlord acknowledged that there had been failings in its stage one response; however, it did not clarify what these were to the resident.
- The landlord’s stage two response failed to address the resident’s concerns about the car park gates not working. Regarding the ceiling repairs, there was a contradiction between what its surveyor had reported to the landlord and what the landlord stated in its response to the resident, as detailed above.
- The landlord made an offer of £50 compensation for its complaint-handling failures at stage one. However, as the Ombudsman has identified additional failures in its stage two response, the landlord’s offer of compensation is not considered sufficient to put its failures right. By consequence, a determination of Service Failure has been identified here, together with an order to pay the resident a further £100 in compensation.
- In accordance with Paragraph 52 of the scheme, there was:
- Maladministration in respect of the landlord’s handling of the resident’s reports about communal repairs.
- No maladministration in respect of the landlord’s response to communal service provision.
- Service failure in respect of the landlord’s complaint handling.
- The landlord to pay the resident an additional £350 in compensation, an additional £100 in relation to its complaints handling, plus a further £250 in relation to the failures identified with its response to her reports about communal repairs.
- The above sum is in addition to the amount already paid by the landlord at the completion of the complaints process.
- If not already completed, the landlord to confirm to the resident the timescale by which the ceiling re-decoration works will be completed.
- The landlord to evidence compliance with these orders to this Service within 28 days of this report.
- The landlord to review the case in conjunction with the Ombudsman’s recent spotlight report on Knowledge and Information management in order to identify any service improvements required to ensure accurate and contemporaneous records are kept and retained for all repairs.