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Tower Hamlets Community Housing (202001334)

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REPORT

COMPLAINT 202001334

Tower Hamlets Community Housing

1 July 2021(Amended on Review)


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 handling of the resident’s request for an emergency repair to the communal front door lock.
  2. The Ombudsman has also considered the landlord’s handling of the resident’s complaint.

Background and summary of events

Background

  1. The resident has been a leaseholder, in respect of the property, for several years.
  2. The property is a one-bedroom ground floor flat.

 

Legal and policy framework

The lease

  1. The landlord’s repair obligations are outlined within the leasehold agreement. This includes the landlord’s obligation to keep in repair and maintain the structure and exterior of the building, parts other than those including in the demise of any flat, and the common parts of the premises. The lease is unclear on how reports of the need for repair should be made.

Responsive repairs policy (RRP)

  1. The landlord has provided this Service with a copy of its repair policy. This sets out the landlord’s approach to managing repairs and indicates that:
    1. The landlord will aim to minimise the time between a request for a repair and its completion.
    2. The landlord will manage communal repairs to the same timescale and standard as internal repairs.
    3. All repairs can be reported by telephone or in person to the Customer Service Team between 8am to 6pm. Repairs can also be reported at any time by email and through the website. The out of hours emergency service operates every day of the year, with an officer on call and contactable.
    4. Emergency repairs, including where the property is not secure (i.e. failure of a secure door entry system), will be responded to within four hours.

Complaints policy

  1. The landlord has also provided a copy of its complaints policy. This outlines the landlord’s complaint handling process and explains that:
    1. At stage one, the complaint will be investigated, and a response provided within 15 working days.
    2. If the resident remains unhappy, a stage two panel review can be requested. If the complaint is not escalated for a review for any reason, the landlord will explain why within 15 working days.
    3. The landlord reserves the right to refuse to deal with complaints or to deal with them differently.

Scope

  1. Along with the above defined complaint, the Ombudsman notes that the resident has also commented on:

a.     The nature of the changes made to the landlord’s updated complaints policy;

b.     Anti-Social Behaviour that he stated the landlord did nothing to remedy.

The Ombudsman has taken the resident’s comments on board and used this to provide context for the direction of this investigation. As (to the Ombudsman’s knowledge) these matters were not explicitly brought to the landlord as complaints however, no specific findings have been made within this report. It should also be noted that as per paragraph 39(f) of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, the Ombudsman will not investigate matters which, in the Ombudsman’s opinion, concern policies that have been properly decided by the landlord in accordance with relevant and appropriate best practice, unless the policy may give rise of contribute to a systemic service failure.

Summary of events

  1. On 28 June 2019 the resident contacted the landlord reporting an incident with an unrecognised individual who was trying to gain access to the building. The resident explained that he had been threatened by the individual and subsequently had made contact with the police. He believed this individual was now an occupant at his neighbour’s property.
  2. A further report was made to the landlord on 14 July 2019 explaining that the beading to the inside glass panel of the communal door had been wrenched away. The resident stated that while this did not impair on his security, it appeared to be malicious damage.
  3. The landlord responded to the resident on 17 July 2019. It confirmed that its Housing Officer would investigate the damage.
  4. On 29 July 2019, the landlord reported to the resident that an unannounced home visit had been made to the resident’s neighbours property and nothing untoward was noted. The landlord assured the resident that it would, in any case, continue to monitor the property for the time being.
  5. On 20 November 2019 (at 10am) the resident emailed several members of the landlord’s staff as well as the Customer Service Team. He explained that he had returned from his holiday to find that the communal door lock had been tampered with, causing him difficulty when withdrawing his key from the lock. He requested that someone look at the lock urgently. He referred to a break in which he had reported on 11 August 2019 and asked if the landlord had abandoned its standards entirely. He followed this up with a further email noting that a member of the landlord’s staff (whom he had copied into his email) had been in training but stating that the matter could not wait.
  6. The resident followed this up with an email in the evening of 20 November 2019 noting that the lock remained unaddressed. He stated that more than six hours had passed since he had reported his emergency repair.
  7. On 21 November 2019 the resident registered a stage one complaint. He highlighted that he had reported the defective door nearly 27 hours prior and nothing had been done. He asserted that this was in excess of the promised service standard for emergency repairs. The resident informed the landlord that he had again struggled to insert, turn, and remove his key from the door. He therefore requested that the lock be addressed as soon as possible, independent of his complaint. He also stated that he wished to ‘invoke [its] Complaints Procedure’ and emphasized that the complaint was regarding the landlord not adhering to its agreed standards. 
  8. On the same day, the landlord confirmed to the resident that an emergency job had been raised.
  9. On 22 November 2019 the landlord acknowledged the resident’s complaint and confirmed that a stage one response would be provided within 15 working days. In a further email, the landlord explained that the lock had been inspected and found to be in working order. It noted, however, that there was a “knack” to the door. The landlord therefore explained that the lock would be replaced, and new keys issued to all residents.
  10. The Ombudsman can see that the resident wrote to the landlord on 27 November 2019 reminding it of its published service standards for emergencies.
  11. On 6 December 2019 the landlord provided its stage one response. It stated:
    1. Its website clearly explained that emergency repairs needed to be reported by phone. Emails, as per its service standards, were responded to within three working days. It was unlikely that it would have the opportunity to resolve an emergency request for a repair within four hours if the request was sent via email. This was unreasonable and therefore this element of the complaint would not be upheld.
    2. The lock was inspected on 22 November 2019 and was found to be difficult to use but in working order. The contractor was therefore instructed to replace this within five working days. The landlord concluded that it did not believe this to be unreasonable.
  12. On 8 December 2019 the resident wrote to the landlord requesting that his complaint be escalated. He expressed dissatisfaction that the landlord had not considered his history of experiences with its service before providing a response. He explained that he would be writing to the landlord again shortly.
  13. On 11 December 2019 the landlord attempted to provide its final response concluding that it would not escalate the resident’s complaint for a stage two review. This was because although the resident requested a service with a target completion time of four hours, his request was communicated via email, and this had a response target time of three working days. The landlord reiterated that it was unreasonable, as a result of this, to expect the emergency repair to be resolved on time.
  14. On the same day however, the resident advised the landlord that the reasons for his escalation request were still on their way via post. 
  15. In response, the landlord highlighted that the resident had made his escalation request on 8 December 2019, to which it had now replied. It confirmed, nonetheless, that it would consider the contents of the letter once received.
  16. On 20 December 2019 the landlord received the resident’s escalation letter. Within this, he stated:
    1. The landlord’s decision appeared to be that emergency repairs would only be treated as such if reported via the “correct” medium. He stated that there was nothing alerting residents to this fact or that this was a feature of the landlord’s requirement.
    2. He had been reluctant to make calls to the landlord, as a result of his past experiences.
    3. He had addressed his emergency report to four members of staff. He questioned why this had not been picked up.
    4. On 21 November 2019, nearly 32 hours later, the landlord confirmed that an emergency job had been raised, and the lock was finally changed a week later on 27 November 2019.

The resident therefore requested that the landlord respond to his complaint via its stage 2 appeal panel. He requested that the landlord consider his previous history and reconsider the points raised at stage one. 

  1. The resident chased a response from the landlord on 24 December 2019 attaching his letter to the email for the landlord’s attention. He questioned whether the landlord had anything to add in response.
  2. On 6 January 2020 the landlord wrote to the resident. It explained that it had carefully read the resident’s letter and, while it would not be escalating the resident’s complaint to stage two as it had advised in its previous response, the complaint had been independently reviewed by a staff member not previously involved. It stated:
    1. In response to the resident’s point concerning the medium for reporting repairs, it had now made clear in the first sentence on its website that emergencies needed to be reported by phone.
    2. As it had stated previously, it had responded to the repair request and completed the repairs within five working days.
    3. While it acknowledged the resident’s alleged historical problems, it found no evidence as to why the resident could not call to report emergencies. The landlord suggested using a nominated representative who could call on the resident’s behalf in the future.

The landlord subsequently declined the resident’s request for a stage two review. 

  1. The Ombudsman notes that on 14 February 2020 the resident wrote to the landlord quoting several parts of its complaints procedure. He questioned whether the landlord’s complaints policy, shared with him in earlier years, was still current policy. In subsequent correspondence on 17 February 2020 the resident confirmed locating a more up to date copy of the policy on the landlord’s website. He asserted that this had been well hidden on the landlord’s website and questioned why this was not brought to his attention. He suggested that the landlord had strung him along. The resident made a further request for his complaint to be escalated. 
  2. On 5 March 2020 the landlord offered a final response. It reiterated that the resident’s stage one complaint was considered on 6 December 2019 and not upheld. Following his email on 8 December 2019, the resident’s stage two escalation was received by post. This was responded to on 6 January 2020 and again the resident’s request was not upheld. It was explained, however, that changes had been made to the website and also to the automated email response to ensure that, moving forward, residents were clear that emergencies needed to be reported via telephone. 
  3. The landlord apologised that the resident remained dissatisfied, however concluded that it had acted appropriately in response to the resident’s report. The landlord accepted that it could have highlighted its updated complaints policy in its correspondence to support the position it took, however explained that the policy was available under its publications section of its website. The landlord emphasised that this was not hidden. Additionally, it noted that there had been previous occasions in which the resident and its officers had differing views and had struggled to arrive at a mutually acceptable conclusion. It therefore proposed to meet with the resident, along with an independent mediator, to facilitate discussions and identify some common ground.

 

Assessment and findings

The landlord’s handling of the resident’s request for an emergency repair to the communal front door lock.

  1. The landlord is obligated to undertake repairs (for which it is responsible) within a reasonable amount of time and without undue delay. This is echoed in the landlord’s RRP and what is reasonable in these circumstances will depend on the type of repair, the impact of the issue, and the landlord’s service standards. Of particular relevance, the Ombudsman has set out the landlord’s proposed response times for “emergency” repairs (as outlined in its policy) and considered its actions against this. In light of this, the Ombudsman has found that the landlord did, in part, fail to uphold its service standard as stated by the resident in making his formal complaint
  2. Following the resident’s report of the faulty lock, identified as an emergency, the landlord should have responded within four hours. The Ombudsman notes, however, that this was not done. As the summary of events makes clear, no action was taken until 22 November 2019, contrary to the landlord’s suggested response time. The Ombudsman has considered the landlord’s position, following the resident’s complaint about its service and is concerned about the landlord’s justification for its delay. This is as, upon reviewing the landlord’s RRP, the Ombudsman has been unable to identify any detail suggesting that emergency repairs needed to be reported via telephone. While the landlord explained that this was clearly detailed on its website, in the Ombudsman’s opinion, this was not (and is not) sufficient. The landlord’s process and expectations should be clearly outlined within its policy/procedural publications. The Ombudsman notes that contrary to the suggestion that reports needed to be made via telephone, the landlord’s policy indicates that all repairs (which could be interpreted to include emergencies) could be reported via telephone, in person, on the website or via email. The Ombudsman has therefore found that the landlord’s lack of clarity here inadvertently resulted in a failure to meet its service standard. While the Ombudsman appreciates that it would be difficult to attend to emergency repairs (if reported via email to individual officers) within four hours, there is nothing to suggest that use of this medium would or could result in delays.
  3. Moreover, in the landlord’s stage one response on 6 December 2019, it suggested that the service standard for responding to its emails was three working days. While this may be the case (and was not disputed by the resident), this conflicts with the landlord’s ability to respond to reported repair needs within good time. This also inhibits the landlord’s ability to minimise the time between a request for a repair and its completion, as suggested in the RRP. The Ombudsman is therefore concerned about the rationale offered to the resident in response to his complaint. In the Ombudsman’s view, the landlord should have used this as an opportunity to reflect on the inconsistency with its RRP and the channels recommended to residents. 
  4. Noting the resident’s previous reports of unauthorised individuals coming in and out of his building, the Ombudsman appreciates that the resident had several concerns for his safety. The Ombudsman therefore accepts that there would have been distress experienced as a result of the landlord’s delay in response and subsequent action. The Ombudsman is, however, satisfied that although the landlord failed to meet its prescribed turnaround time, the landlord did confirm for the resident (on the following day) that an emergency repair had been raised, and the communal door lock was inspected on 22 November 2019. The landlord satisfied itself that the door did not require immediate attention and advised the resident of its findings following the inspection, as well as its plan of action. This was reasonable.
  5. Furthermore, given that the door was still found to be functioning, and therefore posed no immediate risk to the resident’s safety, the Ombudsman has not considered the completion of the lock repair/replacement on 27 November 2019 to be unreasonable.
  6. It was appropriate for the landlord to advise the resident that it had updated its website to ensure that moving forward tenants were aware that emergency repairs needed to be reported via telephone. It was also appropriate (although not detailed in the stage one response as the landlord suggested) for the landlord to update its automated responses. This would enable the landlord to appropriately advise residents, where reports were made via email, to call its emergency line for an immediate response. This was appropriate.
  7. Nonetheless, the Ombudsman would consider it more reasonable for the landlord to adapt its policy to ensure that residents are aware of the best, and expected, way to report an emergency repair. The Ombudsman has therefore taken this into account in making the Orders below.
  8. The Ombudsman notes that the resident explained his reluctance to make contact with the landlord via telephone as a result of his past experiences. In the Ombudsman’s view, it was therefore appropriate for the landlord to suggest having someone call on behalf of the resident as a potential work around / adjustment. In the absence of this, the resident may need to consider a more suitable way to report emergencies to the landlord, should they arise in the future. The landlord’s proposal to partake in mediation was therefore appropriate in attempting to improve this relationship.

 

The landlord’s handling of the resident’s complaint.

  1. The Ombudsman recognises that under the landlord’s complaints policy, the landlord reserves the right to refuse to deal with complaints. This would include complaints which it has considered at stage one and which it does not believe require escalation to its stage two panel. In the Ombudsman’s view however, it would have been reasonable for the landlord to consider the resident’s complaint at stage two, following receipt of the resident’s complaint escalation letter on 20 December 2019. This is as, in the Ombudsman’s view, the landlord’s justification for the delay in completing the repair, while in line with its approach, was unsatisfactory.
  2. The Ombudsman also notes, as seen by the stamp of receipt, that the landlord received the resident’s complaint escalation letter on 20 December 2019. The Ombudsman appreciates that the landlord had already offered a final response on 11 December 2019 and referred the resident to the Ombudsman Service. It was therefore reasonable for the landlord to agree to review the resident’s letter at a later time. The Ombudsman also recognises that due to the Christmas holiday, the landlord may not have been operating at full capacity. With this said, nonetheless, it would have been reasonable for the landlord to have contacted the resident on receipt of his letter and confirmed that it would be responding in due course. This would have enabled the landlord to manage the resident’s expectation and offered confirmation that the correspondence had arrived. The Ombudsman cannot see that this was done, however. The resident subsequently chased a response and reattached his escalation letter on 24 December 2019.
  3. The Ombudsman appreciates that in response to the resident’s letter, a member of the landlord’s staff (who had not previously been involved) independently reviewed the resident’s complaint. This was fair. It was also fair for the landlord to concede, following the resident’s further contact on 14 and 17 February 2020, and to offer a further final response. In the Ombudsman’s opinion however, the landlord still failed to put things right. At minimum, the landlord should have offered the resident an apology for the two-day delay in undertaking the inspection as well as confirming the changes that would be made to ensure that similar issues did not occur in the future.
  4. The Ombudsman has not commented on the length of time taken for the resident to fully complete the landlord’s complaints process as, in this instance, it was reasonable for the landlord to offer a further response. The landlord should note, however, that under the Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code, complaints should be managed efficiently and within a two-stage process.
  5. Finally, as the resident made several references to the complaints policy and the landlord’s obligations against this, it would have been reasonable for the landlord to advise the resident on its most recent version of the complaints policy. The Ombudsman can see that the landlord accepted that it could have made reference to this in its response on 5 March 2020. The Ombudsman has not, however, considered this to be a failing or evidence that the resident was being “strung” along. The Ombudsman is satisfied that the updated complaints policy was available on the landlord’s website and therefore easily accessible within the public domain. The landlord was not obligated to bring the new version to the attention of its residents although it is best practice to do so, for example through resident’s newsletters.

 

Determination (decision)

  1. In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was:
    1. A service failure in respect of the landlord’s handling of the resident’s request for an emergency repair to the communal front door lock.
    2. A service failure in respect of the landlord’s handling of the resident’s complaint.

 

Reasons

  1. The Ombudsman has arrived at the above determination as:
    1. While the landlord was able to confirm that the lock was still functioning and that there was no immediate risk to the resident’s safety, it failed to undertake the emergency repair within the timescale set out in its RRP. As per the landlord’s policy, the issue should have been attended to within four hours and the Ombudsman cannot see that any exceptions exist where repair reports are made via email. In the Ombudsman’s view, the landlord therefore failed to act within a reasonable amount of time, in line with its repair obligations. The landlord should have recognised the resident’s dissatisfaction as a result and expressed admission of its error. The Ombudsman notes that the landlord did, in part, reflect on the resident’s situation / comments and highlight how it would use this to improve its service, however in the Ombudsman’s opinion, the landlord did not go far enough to put things right.
    2. As a result of the landlord’s refusal to undertake a stage two panel review, in the Ombudsman’s opinion, the landlord failed to take the opportunity to review the issue which caused its delayed repair. It was reasonable for the landlord to offer a further final response in March 2020, however had the landlord appropriately offered the resident a stage two panel review, following receipt of his letter, this might have allowed for a more senior review by several parties (bringing together a wider perspective and level of expertise), the opportunity for the resident to point out the conflicts with the landlord’s advised approach, and opportunity for the landlord to learn from the outcome. In the Ombudsman’s view the landlord also failed to acknowledge the subsequent impact on the resident and to offer, at minimum, an apology.

Orders and recommendations

Orders

  1. In recognition of the landlord’s service failures, the Ombudsman orders the landlord to:
    1. Offer the resident an apology for the delay in undertaking the repair to the communal front door. Although the Ombudsman is satisfied that the delay was minimal, and cannot see that the resident’s safety was compromised, the Ombudsman acknowledges that there was an element of distress caused to the resident and considers that an apology would be appropriate.
    2. Carry out a review of its Responsive Repair Policy, taking into account the comments made by the Ombudsman on this particular case.
    3. Award the resident £100 for the inconvenience and time spent pursuing his complaint.
  2. The landlord should confirm to the Ombudsman that it will review the policy and provide a provisional timescale for completing this. It should also make the above payment and apology within four weeks of receiving the determination.

 

Recommendations

  1. While the Ombudsman appreciates that several complaint responses were required in this case, the landlord should in the future aim to put things right and offer its final position within a two-stage process. This will enable the landlord and the resident to exhaust the process efficiently and, if the resident remains dissatisfied, provide the opportunity to escalate the complaint to the Ombudsman Service within good time.