Transcript of Housing Ombudsman podcast, November 2021

Podcast transcript

Spotlight report on damp and mould – Interview by Catherine Ryder of the National Housing Federation

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

Welcome, everyone to this Housing Ombudsman podcast. My name is Catherine Ryder. I’m Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation, which is the trade body for housing associations. I’m delighted to have been asked to join Richard Blakeway, who is the Housing Ombudsman to talk about their recent report looking at issues of damp and mould, which was published in October. I’ve got some questions for Ric, which I hope will give you all some insight into the recent reports. Ric, I wonder if I could ask you first off. The quality of social housing and damp and mould in particular has been in the news a lot recently. I wonder if you can tell us why you decided initially to do the report on damp and mould.

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman

Hi, Catherine. Thanks. We started early in 2021 thinking about how we would use our new powers to undertake in depth investigations. And I think COVID at that stage was really at the forefront of everyone’s thinking, and I was really conscious of the link between health and housing. And it felt right, to do something that spoke to that issue. We’re also aware that damp and mould is an area of casework where we see real distress and disruption for residents. And we’re also aware that our maladministration rate, our uphold rate, where we saw things going wrong was relatively high. So I think a combination of those factors meant that we wanted to focus in on damp and mould for an in depth investigation. And then, as you saw during the course of the year, obviously, the profile of the issue, and the discussion about the issue became very high profile.

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

Great, thank you really useful, just to understand the kind of context for the report from your perspective. I know, at the National Housing Federation, we responded to your call for evidence, and we were grateful to have the chance to contribute to the report. What sort of response did you get to your call for evidence? Where did those kinds of responses come from? And how did you use them to shape the kind of findings and the conclusions in the report?

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman

It’s the first time we’ve done a call for evidence to support an investigation like this. And the response was really overwhelming. We had just over 500 individual responses, the vast majority, around three quarters came from residents. But it was open to all and we had a number of landlords, professional bodies. And then if you like, I suppose operatives, you know, surveyors and others also respond with their perspective. And that call for evidence was, for us, a really valuable exercise to then supplement the evidence base that we have from our individual investigations. So we had around 400 individual investigations over a two year period that fed into the report, and that was across about 142 different landlords. And then you had the call for evidence and what the call for evidence I think showed us was some of the root causes, some of the underlying issues. It allowed us to explore why some of the challenges that we were seeing, what sat behind that, allowed us to look at different responses, different approaches that landlords took. But also the experience of residents who may not have raised a complaint, but still experienced difficulties. So, that approach, I think, really lent something extra to the report and really allowed us to strengthen the findings that we made.

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

Great, thank you. And it’s really important that the residents, the people that are experiencing these issues, have their voices heard and I’m sure everyone would have really appreciated the time that you took in in making sure that those views were gathered and central to the report. Ric, can you put your finger on, because obviously this has a lot of interest at the moment, and we’ve seen a lot of cases which feel pretty significant, can you put your finger on what has gone wrong? Is there an issue that you saw time and time again, any particular themes that emerged when you looked at some of the most significant cases and what do you think has happened here?

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman 

I think one thing, thinking of your previous question around the call for evidence, and what we saw through that – one thing, which came across strongly through the call for evidence, and you can also see in some of the casework that we handle is this issue around residents feeling that somehow blamed for occurrences of damp, or mould – and this use of the word lifestyle, that it’s the result of lifestyle choices, when in fact, the choices may be very limited for that household. That came across very strongly in the call for evidence. And that was something which we labelled the kind of systemic issue that we found when we did this investigation, there really needs to be a revaluation of how information and communication with residents was undertaken. I think getting the diagnosis right is critical. And an effective diagnosis and then acting on any recommendations from an independent report is critical. Maladministration was often driven by inaction or excessive delays, as well as those kind of communication issues. And then also within all of this is how proactive a landlord is. And we found that many landlords were quite reactive to the issue – reactive to residents reporting occurrences of damp and mould rather than necessarily having a proactive approach to ensuring, as far as possible that the issue was prevented.

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

Great, thank you. And in the report, you talk about how landlords might get to the bottom of issues that people don’t necessarily proactively report to them. What’s the approach that you think landlords should take to make sure that they’ve got a view across all of the homes that they own and manage rather than, as you say just waiting for cases to be reported to them?

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman 

One of the things which we say in this report, and it’s one of the central themes for this report, is this idea that there should be a zero tolerance approach to addressing damp and mould. And by that we mean a really proactive approach to addressing damp and mould. And this is an area where we have seen some good practice. And obviously, many landlords over the last few months have been thinking about how they respond to this issue and how they could potentially strengthen their response to the issue. One piece of best practice that I think we saw was a landlord, when they do an inspection of one property, is also inspecting neighbouring properties, to understand the full extent of the damp and mould and seeing whether actually, there’s something that they should be doing beyond responding to the individual home which has been reported to them. And I think that combined with a data driven intelligence led approach to thinking about the buildings that a landlord is responsible for, is absolutely critical to addressing damp and mould and should also be part of wider stategies particularly in relation to net zero.

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

I’m glad you mentioned the zero tolerance approach, because we’re always going to get cases of damp and mould, aren’t we? So, in your view is a zero tolerance approach realistic and presumably by zero tolerance, you don’t mean there should never be any other cases of damp and mould, because certainly looking at the Housing Association sector, with the millions of homes that we own and manage, there are always going to be cases on there.

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman 

You’re right that the age and design of some social housing will present particular challenges for landlords but a zero tolerance approach, as you rightly say, is not about there being zero cases. But as we say in the report, there should be less fatalism around that, there should be zero tolerance. When a report is made, the zero tolerance is about how effective the responses are. I think landlords, one of the things which I was struck by that we didn’t really see many landlords have, is a comprehensive policy or comprehensive framework for addressing damp or mould – which could incorporate some of those proactive kind of prevention measures, but then particularly really looks at the diagnosis. And then if the diagnosis is structural, the pathway on which the landlord will go and how its response will be formed. And if it’s non structural, the kind of interventions that the landlord may still take to support the resident and try and stop the reoccurrence of damp and mould – be really clear about those steps depending on the diagnosis, the timescales around action, being transparent, so the resident knows what to expect, and then being really clear about follow up. I think this is one of the things which also came across really strongly in our call for evidence as well as some of the more complex case work that we saw is that sometimes an intervention is undertaken, but it’s not effective. And so, landlords do need to revisit potentially up for a year after the initial intervention to see has it been successful. It’s setting all of that out in a comprehensive and consolidated policy – I think would give a lot of assurance to landlords and their boards, that they’ve got the right approach, as well as being transparent and giving confidence to residents as to what sort of response they should expect their landlord to undertake if they report an issue.

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

So, you touched on there, and that’s really helpful to understand, that you touched on in your response there – one of the challenges for landlords being the age of some of the homes that we own and manage. I just wonder, are there any other kind of broader challenges you think we face in adopting the kind of zero tolerance approach that you’ve outlined? And the kind of broader context that we’re working in as a sector?

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman 

Yes, obviously, the age of homes and the design of homes is definitely a feature, poverty, fuel poverty, overcrowding, those can be issues as well, which landlords will need to respond to, and could mean that there are an increased risk of damp and mould, but these are known things. And so, knowing that those are challenges for landlords, it’s how landlords then consider those challenges and think about, well, if these are the kinds of challenges that may present themselves, then how do we get ahead of that? And how do we ensure that our approach is comprehensive enough to try and prevent issues occurring, so that we’re not being reactive? I think there’s also that thing about, and we describe it in the report, is landlords finding their silence, where all indicators, such as the design or age of building suggests that there may be issues, but you’re not seeing reports of damp and mould coming forward. It the two things don’t reconcile, then again, that’s another trigger, should be another trigger for landlords to think well, actually, should we be looking a bit more closely here? Should we be digging a bit deeper here? And are we confident that people are finding it straightforward to submit a service request or to access and use and navigate our complaints process?

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

Great, thank you. And it’s easy, isn’t it? When you look at an issue like damp and mould to focus on where there has been failure. I think it’s right that we do that because it’s, as you said at the beginning, it’s about the experience of residents that is most important here, but I wonder Ric, I think in some of your cases, some of the submissions you had in your call for evidence, and you’ve already touched on this, but I think you uncovered some good practice as well, didn’t you? And I just wonder if you could give us one or two examples of either landlords who have sort of transformed their approach to damp and mould or landlords who have always been on top of this issue, and is there anything that characterises good practice for you.

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman 

So I think areas of good practice that we include in the report are around that. Extending the assessment of when there’s a report, looking at neighbouring properties, extending the assessment to see whether the problem might be bigger than they initially thought. I think other areas of good practice is sharing the findings of Independent reports with residents and being really clear about the steps which will be taken. I think the resident having confidence in the diagnosis and understanding the diagnosis is critical for them to build trust with the resident that the right actions are going to be taken. And getting and then sharing that independent expertise, I think is really key. And then also, I would say around complex case work, because there will be some cases where the response and effective response will be more complex to achieve, and bringing real focus on that – and really effective communication. Sometimes single points of communication with the resident, I think, are all key things. One of the things just to add, though, on the casework is that there’s a number of case studies that we include in the report where whether it was a void or a mutual exchange, there was perhaps an opportunity to address something before that property was reoccupied. And I think that’s a real learning point for landlords thinking about a proactive and preventative strategies to ensure that, when there is a void, that actually the right steps are taken to ensure that there isn’t damp and mould in that property. And there is a risk that new occupants may end up having problems.

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

Thanks. That’s really helpful and good, I think sometimes to focus on when we’re talking about good practice, really hone in on some of the kind of practical, day to day changes that landlords can make, as you say, to start to get closer to the sort of zero tolerance approach that you’ve outlined. Ric, I wonder if you could say a little bit about, so as certainly in the housing association sector that I work in, there are concerns around levels of disrepair claims. I wonder if you could say a bit about how this links to some of the cases that you’ve seen when you’ve been looking at damp and mould and how we can, not necessarily avoid disrepair claims, but ensure that residents are getting the best outcome and don’t always feel it necessary to resort to a disrepair claim.

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman 

It’s a really important point, Catherine, you’re right. There has been a significant increase in the number of disrepair claims that landlords are experiencing, and I think this points very directly to how can the complaints process be used to effectively address problems when they arise, and also learn from issues and use the casework to learn from issues to hopefully prevent problems arising, all of which should ensure that residents don’t feel the need to go to the courts to get their problems resolved. A presence or resorting to the courts or indeed the media to get a problem resolved. And that’s a real failure. I think it suggests that actually the complaints process should be there for them, and responsive to them when they have an issue and if that’s not happening, then looking at the complaints processes by the landlord is important. One of the things which we’ve done alongside this report is published our a guidance notes on how the complaints process and disrepair claim should coexist. We’ve been really clear that our jurisdiction means that where someone has commenced with the pre action protocol on housing conditions, that doesn’t constitute legal proceedings, and therefore, the complaints process should still be used to respond to them. If they have an open complaint, and if they’re unhappy with the response to that complaint by the landlord, then they can still come to the Ombudsman – and the Ombudsman can consider the issue and give a response. And potentially, that will be before anything, before the pre action protocol is exhausted, and certainly before potentially leading to any court action. If those steps are followed, that, therefore gives the resident an opportunity to see a comprehensive response hopefully, to their issues in their complaint. And could well be one way of ensuring that the complaints process has been used to its full effect, to resolve issues. So, potentially people feel they don’t need to go to court as an alternative.

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

Thank you, I’m sure people will be really interested in that. Because as I say, I know there’s a lot of concerns, certainly in our sector, and mostly because people feel like we’re not getting the best outcome from residents. Ric, there’s a lot in the report. And as I said, a lot of really practical stuff. Certainly for landlords to think about and to think about how they embed some of the learning that you shared into their own everyday policies and practices. I wonder if you could say from your perspective, are there one or two sort of key things that you think landlords should take from the report in order to improve? Like, what are the one or two things that you would urge landlords crack on and get these two or three things right?

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman

Well, the last chapter of the report is titled demonstrating change. And so I think, above all, I’d strongly encourage landlords to obviously consider this report, there’s learning presented in it for landlords, for people performing different roles within the landlord, whether they’re in a complaints team, whether they are frontline staff, whether they’re a senior executive, or whether they’re on the board. So we’d strongly encourage landlords to consider that, to discuss it, to consider at their board, at their governing body, and then demonstrate change and be clear about any steps that they’ve taken to strengthen their approach to addressing damp or mould. Because I think that’s so key, I mean, residents who hadn’t experienced damp and mould, have been really clear with me over the last few months, how much they see this as part of their view of how their landlord responds to issues of how their landlord, works and how effective it is. And one of the things which is often a theme in our work is around getting the right culture, getting the right behaviours and demonstrating learning. And I think this report on damp and mould and the issues around that speak really, really strongly to that. So getting that zero tolerance approach, being proactive, and then being transparent, and really clear about the steps which will be taken to address issues when they arise, are things which are really important for residents, and are really important for landlords to ensure that their reputations are enhanced and not undermined by the concerns around this issue.

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

Thank you and my experience of talking certainly to housing association colleagues since the report has been published is that people have been really keen to engage in the report and to learn from the kind of experience and the lessons that you’ve shared in the report and do really want to address issues in damp and mould and take this incredibly seriously. But I wonder, just as a final question for you, how has the report landed? What kind of responses have you had and what work are you planning to do with landlords to follow up the sorts of lessons in the report?

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman

Well, yes, I mean, I really concur Catherine with your summary that I think landlords have wanted to engage with the content of the report. And I’m aware that many landlords are doing exactly what I said, and considering it at their board talking to their residents which is great. We certainly want to do some more follow up around the pre action protocol on housing conditions and how it can work in parallel with the complaints process. I think that’s a really important area to get right. And we really want to work with the sector on that. I think there are some issues in this report, which speak to wider things, they’re not specific to damp or mould, although they were strong features. So those are things like missed appointments, the skills gap, sometimes on your operatives, attending homes, missed appointments – these are areas which do come up elsewhere in our case work. And there’s a bit more work to do with the sector to engage on those issues, to try and reduce failures there. But we will do some more work with yourself and with others  to continue to promote what we think are some really positive recommendations in this report to really improve the experience of anyone, any resident that has damp or mould, and to really try and address this issue, which has become such a focus over the last few months.

 

Catherine Ryder, Director of Policy and Research at the National Housing Federation 

Great, thank you. That was so helpful to get your insight, Ric, and some of the background and context that sits behind this report. You get a much richer understanding of the work that you’ve been doing in conversation than I think you would just get from reading the report. Nevertheless, as you say, it is really important that everybody reads the report and everybody who works in our sector engages with this issue. And as I said, we know it’s something that our housing association members are fully committed to addressing. So huge thank you, Ric, for responding to all of my questions. And a big thank you to the Housing Ombudsman for inviting me to join your podcast today.

 

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman

Thank you

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