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Transcript of Housing Ombudsman podcast, July 2021

Relaxing the Rules and Returning to the New Normal – Insights from the Housing Ombudsman

Ric Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman:

Hi folks. My name is Ric Blakeway. Welcome to the first in a new series of podcasts from the Housing Ombudsman. The aim is to provide you with insight on the cases we are handling and issues we are seeing. Through them you will meet a number of my colleagues, who will offer their expertise and share best practice. Hopefully you will benefit from their experience to consider your approach to complaint handling. We will make these podcasts timely as issues arise and will have some aimed at residents too. So let’s get going.

This week we are seeing Covid restrictions change in England. It follows a difficult 18 months for everyone. Landlords, residents and service providers have faced and often risen to the many challenges presented by Covid.

Not only have organisations needed to change their working to keep people safe, but they have needed to change their approach to delivering key services and none more than repairs. Repairs, delays and communication are the focus for this podcast; an area where we are also seeing increased discussion about disrepair claims.

We issued guidance last year on our approach to handling complaints during this period, and during this podcast we will reflect on what we’ve seen. You will hear about two, very different cases we adjudicated and, as we enter a new normal, we will share some key observations.

I hope you enjoy. And I’ll had over now to David Simmons, our Sector Engagement Lead and Verity Richards, Head of Dispute Support.

Verity Richards, Head of Dispute Support

We wanted to start by sharing a review of our casework to explain the volumes we have seen and our findings. We have focussed on instances where complaints have been affected by Covid-19, either because the root cause of the complaint is how landlords have responded during the pandemic, or that the actions needed to resolve the case have been delayed due to the challenges presented by the virus.

Of the 500 or so cases reported to us, it will be no surprise that these mainly relate to the repairs and maintenance service either due to changes to service delivery, availability of staff or replacement parts. We know that this continues to be a challenge for landlords with the material shortages, availability of staff and for residents, understandably, they will be looking for overdue works to be completed as soon as possible.

There has also been an increase in complaints about how landlords have handled concerns about tenant behaviour and neighbourhood issues. Again, we are not surprised by these findings, given that residents have been at home longer, with more pressure on their daily lives without normal ways of releasing tension, such as holidays or breaks away.

We have also examined the details of the casework we have been handling through investigations and decisions to identify and share good and poor practice in the way that landlords have responded.

Firstly, in terms of successful strategies:

A resident of a large landlord was informed that his annual gas service check was required, however he expressed concerns about the safety precautions that the landlord was proposing. He explained that he felt particularly vulnerable due to his health and that he wanted the landlord’s operatives to follow his instructions to wear a specially bought paper suit, sanitise himself in the garden and to maintain social distancing at all times.

Although this was over and above the requirements identified in its risk assessment, the landlord and its operative agreed to the resident’s wishes and the gas service check was completed without the need for any formal action such as injunctions or capping the gas.

Dave Simmons, Sector Engagement Lead

Another case which highlights a less successful approach is an instance where there was a delay in attending to a leak in a resident’s property. In the first instance there was an unreasonable delay in the landlord acting on the resident’s reports about the leak (which was classed as an emergency repair) and it failed to deal with this report within the prescribed timeframes.

Furthermore, once the landlord did act on the reports, it failed to carry out an adequate investigation into the matter and the issue persisted for a prolonged period of time until the source of the problem was identified and it was eventually resolved.

Whilst the landlord acknowledged that there had been delays in it remedying the leak, it referenced its interim compensation policy, that it had introduced after lockdown, which stated that no discretionary payments of compensation would be made for delays in repairs.

We considered that approach to be unreasonable in this situation as there was no evidence to show that the landlord’s failure to respond adequately to the reports about the leak was solely due to the pandemic and outside of its control. Rather it was simply down to a poor level of service for which the landlord had provided no reasonable explanation.

The pandemic has resulted in some positive changes in how repairs are addressed. Landlords have introduced new innovations to enable them to handle repairs requests whilst minimising contact with residents, particularly those that are shielding. One such example is the use of augmented reality technology which enables operatives to be ‘virtually’ present in a resident’s home, to see the issue in real time using video technology on a tablet or mobile phone.

This has enabled landlords to diagnose an issue and offer guidance and support to the resident on how to resolve it. Through the use of this technology simple repairs such as fixing a door or connecting a washing machine have been resolved whilst maintaining a safe distance. This new way of working may continue to form part of some landlords’ overall approach to repairs and could continue to play a part in resolving repairs for those residents still needing to, or wanting to, maintain a safe distance.

Verity Richards, Head of Dispute Support

As Dave has already mentioned in his case study, offering fair and appropriate compensation is important.

Landlords are not expected to compensate residents automatically for delays solely down to Covid-19. However, landlords need to be really clear as to whether delays are solely attributable to the pandemic.

We do expect the usual principles to apply, in that if a resident has been caused distress or inconvenience by any failures on a landlord’s part, then discretion should be exercised appropriately. Failures could include keeping to timescales, keeping residents updated with the progress of their repair and the reason for any changes. If this does happen, we would expect that the landlord consider offering some form of redress to recognise the impact that this may have had on the resident.

It’s important to note that this includes landlords that are operating an interim repairs policy to reflect any necessary changes in their processes or to deal with any backlog of repairs. Landlords are still expected to follow that policy and to recognise the impact on a resident for any failures to do so. Any offer of redress should also account for somebody’s individual circumstances as well as the failure of service itself.

Over to you Dave

Dave:

Given the above, what are the key messages for landlords?

Many landlords are taking the approach that requests are simply being dealt with in date order rather than taking a tandem approach to handling new repair requests and tackling the backlog of repairs requests that built up during lockdown. Whatever approach landlords decide to take, they should be clear on their strategy and that they approach this situation in the fairest way as possible making sure they are open and transparent with residents.

Landlords should continue to exercise their discretion appropriately and there may be instances where it is necessary to go outside their timescales (interim or otherwise) to take account of a resident’s vulnerability. There may be reason to prioritise a repairs request if leaving it outstanding poses a particular risk to a resident that falls within that category. The key message is that landlords should be clear on their strategy but still consider on a case-by-case basis.

Verity:

As we all know, communication is the key to minimising confusion or inconvenience for customers.

Poor communication, be it inaccurate, untimely, insufficient or unclear, is one of the key reasons as to why disputes arise or can be a factor in making a situation worse for both parties.

Landlords should be clear and up front about their approach to repairs to residents as widely as possible (including to staff and contractors) so that everyone is aware what standard of service should be expected.

We also expect landlords to provide regular and timely updates about individual repairs, and their wider approach as the situation evolves and explain any reasons for delays. Effectively managing residents’ expectations will pay a key part for landlords in managing their way through any backlog of repairs and arranging new works if there are challenges to the supply line or operative availability.

Dave:

As we move into the new normal, we know that not everyone will be ready to move into the new world and it’s about listening and respecting their choice.

The government is expecting people to take responsibility for themselves. People are still going to have their own personal concerns and preferences for how they interact with others. These should be acknowledged and accommodated within reason.

When it comes to complaint handling, landlords should recognise and work to the new expectations set out in the new Complaint Handling Code. Of particular note, when it comes to complaints about repairs, is that responses to formal complaints should not be delayed until outstanding repairs have been completed. Rather your complaint response should be an assessment of what has happened up until that point and should clearly set out the timeframes in which any outstanding actions will be completed. Landlords should have separate processes in place to monitor any commitment to undertake repairs through to a conclusion, to ensure they are completed to a good standard in a timely manner and that regular updates are provided where appropriate. The key message here is don’t let delays in service result in delays in progressing a resident’s formal complaint.

It should also be noted that the Ombudsman is also aware that there are an increasing number of legal claims emerging as repairs remain outstanding for longer and residents become frustrated by a lack of action. There may be some jurisdictional issues around complaints that may be subject to legal action.

Jurisdictional decisions can be some of the most complex decisions that we make and whilst it may be appropriate to manage a resident’s expectations around this, it is important that you allow that final decision to be made by one of our casework team and that residents are not dissuaded from contacting us.

Verity:

We have covered a number of points in today’s podcast which we hope you’ve found useful.

Before we finish, we wanted to remind you that there are tools on our website for residents and landlords. These includes our Covid-19 guidance, the Ombudsman’s Code and the frequently asked questions and our published decisions.

For residents, we also have our ‘how to’ guides about how to make a complaint, letter templates for writing to their landlord and progressing their complaint. These are all on our website and available for everyone to access.

For landlords, our key recommendations are:

  • To be clear about your strategy to manage repairs, and communicate this clearly
  • Exercise discretion appropriately and
  • Continue to be fair with how you deal with the backlog of repairs and how you manage complaints.