Council landlord learns its lessons, says ombudsman

mojo cp - Shutterstock

Failings by Hammersmith and Fulham Council have left some tenants “feeling anything but secure in their homes”, according to the Housing Ombudsman.

“Multiple and repeated failures” are laid bare in a report on the ombudsman’s special investigation into the council, however the landlord was praised for its proactive efforts to learn from its failings and improve its performance.

Richard Blakeway, the Housing Ombudsman, said: “Social housing provides vital services, and the leadership of the landlord should be commended for the proactive and positive approach it has taken to learn from this investigation.”

The ombudsman started to take a closer look at Hammersmith and Fulham last year following a number of cases involving severe maladministration. In the report, the ombudsman issued 85 findings in 33 cases with a maladministration rate of 88%.

Among the cases were instances such as windows that could not be closed to make properties secure, part of a window frame falling out of a property into a garden below, ceiling debris falling onto the head of a young child, and residents complaining of feeling unsafe in their buildings.

Overall the ombudsman made 138 orders to make things right.

Blakeway said: “The landlord appeared to be operating in crisis management mode for a number of years. Central to this investigation is the handling of the short-term impact of the removal of a contractor when some residents were living with unacceptable service failures that required redress. This provides cautionary evidence for other landlords.

“The human impact of multiple and repeated failures in service delivery is apparent throughout our report. In some cases, those failures led to residents feeling anything but secure in their homes and on the streets.

He added: “Our investigation reveals how many residents said that they felt the ongoing issues were having a detrimental impact on their mental well-being; others advised their physical health was declining as a result of the disrepair, and for others, there was also fear of being injured as a result of the ongoing repairs.

“There were also financial implications as residents had to spend additional money to keep their properties heated during the winter months, with some residents choosing to pay for their own independent inspections in order to progress the repairs.”

Key themes

The ombudsman identified two key themes and made recommendations to improve in those areas:

  • Repair handling: There were multiple failings in this area, such as the landlord not hitting emergency or routine repairs timescales. Not following procedures also had a detrimental impact on residents with incorrect contractors being sent, repairs incomplete, and issues reoccurring. The landlord also was not routinely updating records in a timely manner which meant there was often confusion about the status of the repair or whether works had taken place. The landlord also suffered from issues with its contractors, either not sending the correct operative or performance and quality being called into question. When it terminated the contract of one contractor, residents suffered between the transition and the lack of focus on residents’ complaints was a missed opportunity to recover poor service. Additionally, a lack of a vulnerabilities policy, or a failure to follow it if it existed, has resulted in vulnerable residents being left in properties that impacted their physical and mental health
  • Complaint handling: The landlord’s complaints procedure was not compliant with the Complaint Handling Code, meaning it initially failed to escalate 40% of cases investigated, and in three of these cases, it only did so after ombudsman involvement. There were also extensive delays in many of the responses. These did not always provide an adequate level of detail, address each point, or were incorrect or contradictory of previous responses. The landlord sometimes failed to action the promises made in the responses. On top of this, it did not appear to follow its own compensation policy and the difference between initial offer and final compensation payment was sometimes significant

The ombudsman has recommended that Hammersmith and Fulham undertakes several improvements in these two areas including updating its repairs and maintenance handbook, creating a knowledge and information management framework for all stages of the repairs process, and reviews its whole complaints procedure to ensure it is compliant with the Complaint Handling Code.

The ombudsman service says it will work with the landlord until it has assurances that the landlord has complied with the recommendations, and they are embedding these changes into practice.

According to the ombudsman, Hammersmith and Fulham has already sought to make changes and improvements in the areas we have identified and these are laid out in the report.

Blakeway added: “It is encouraging to see that the landlord has already made significant changes to its structure and processes in key areas.

“This demonstrates how complaints can be essential to make social housing better and give landlords a clear picture of where improvements need to be made. As our Complaint Handling Code becomes statutory, it is essential landlords use this opportunity to make learning from complaints routine and put the right resources into complaint handling.”

Lessons learned

In in its learning statement to the ombudsman, Hammersmith and Fulham Council said it was “truly sorry” and reiterated its “deepest regrets” to those residents affected.

“We have apologised, compensated, and worked hard to rectify where we let people down,” the council added. “The Housing Ombudsman has recognised the transformational change we are making and our continued ambition to improve. We strive for consistently high-quality, fair, and compassionate services. We want everyone to have a safe, decent warm home in a diverse and thriving community.

“We have worked closely with the ombudsman to put things right. The ombudsman has noted our leadership’s positive approach to learning from this investigation, building on improvements that we as a council had already begun. We fully accept its report findings and will deliver its recommendations.”

The council says its commitment is underlined by the formation of a chief executive-led taskforce to strengthen its housing services and leadership team. It is also delivering a £729m programme to modernise its ageing housing stock.”

Our commitment is underlined by establishing a Chief Executive led Taskforce to strengthen our housing services and leadership team. It is also delivering an ambitious £729m programme to modernise our ageing housing stock.

The council has also “invested heavily” in additional repairs contractor capacity, and says it is finishing around 50,000 jobs a year. Over the last nine months, it has reduced the number of outstanding repairs by nearly 30%. Furthermore, it says there has been a 90% reduction in repairs outstanding for more than 12 weeks.

The statement added: “The ombudsman’s report recognises the dramatic fall in outstanding damp and mould in 2023, overseen by an Action Group of Housing, Public Health, and Social Services professionals.”

Image credit: mojo cp – Shutterstock

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