An inspection by the Housing Ombudsman of Lambeth Council’s complaint handling has found that despite making improvements, these have not been “seen and felt by its residents”.
As a result of the findings, the ombudsman has urged Lambeth to tackle the cause of complaints to create meaningful change.
The inspection was launched after the ombudsman remained dissatisfied at information provided by the landlord in response to its orders about complaint handling.
It allowed the ombudsman to hear from complaint handling staff directly, and understand the pressures the landlord is facing, as well as identify inconsistencies in handling complaint effectively. This additional insight proved “invaluable”, the ombudsman said.
Richard Blakeway, housing ombudsman, said: “This inspection happened because two residents had to seek the ombudsman’s intervention more than once to resolve complaints that we had previously upheld. The landlord must ensure this is not repeated.
“There are still too many residents receiving an unacceptable service. Indeed, the frustration of some residents was palpable at a Meet the Ombudsman session the landlord hosted. Effective complaint handling is a core component of rebuilding trust with residents.
“By improving its learning from complaints and channelling its efforts into truly understanding the driving factors behind its complaints, the landlord will give itself every chance of improving.”
According to the ombudsman’s report, it found a lack of consistency in various aspects of Lambeth Council‘s complaint handling. This included how it lodged complaints, with timescales being outside of compliance with the Complaint Handling Code, and some complaints being dealt with by a separate ‘members enquiries’ process.
Furthermore, several members of staff told the ombudsman different things about the same processes of closing complaints.
“Good progress” has been made in some parts of Lambeth’s complaint handling. As an example, it was found to have reduced overdue complaints from 2,283 in April 2022 to 154 in November 2023.
However, the ombudsman found that the landlord is currently not resourced to adequately respond to the complaints it is handling through its existing process. This means the landlord’s efforts to respond adequately to complaints will only ever go so far.
Unless addressed, residents will continue to have to contact the landlord several times to be heard, and face unacceptable delays to complaints.
The inspection also found a need for the landlord to refocus on the reoccurring issues that lead to complaints coming to the ombudsman: Not fulfilling its commitments made at stage two, and not recognising the full impact of its failings and providing appropriate redress.
The landlord’s focus on the volume of outstanding complaints also means its approach to learning from complaints and root cause analysis is underdeveloped.
Due to the clear link between the landlord’s approach to repairs and its complaint handling performance, the inspection also made recommendations around this, including making sure repairs records are more robust and consider vulnerabilities.
Lambeth has also carried out its own internal review following the investigation and has built on some of the findings, which was welcomed by the ombudsman.
The ombudsman says it will continue to hold the landlord to account through its casework, and will review the landlord’s performance in its next annual report, which is produced for all landlords the ombudsman handles several complaints.
Blakeway added: “We commend the leadership of the landlord for the focus it has brought to resolving the problems which have beset it. The landlord has introduced a culture of accountability and ownership and a solid platform to now go further.
“There are already positive signs. The ombudsman has not issued the landlord with a Complaint Handling Failure Order in over six months, having issued five last year. However, the steps the landlord has taken have yet to result in a more consistently positive resident experience.
“Crucially, the landlord needs to guard against what happens once the increased focus it currently has on its complaints and repairs services is removed. A transition to business as usual will bring with it risks of a return to the unacceptable performance seen in recent years.
“The landlord will need to put in place measures to identify and act on any decline in standards as early as possible.”
Image credit: chainarong06/Shutterstock
In its learning statement to the ombudsman, Lambeth Council said it welcomed the report produced following the inspection, which took place in October last year.
“The council engaged fully with the inspection team and we have used this process to positively identify areas of improvement in our services to residents. We accept the findings and commit to delivering the recommendations within three months,” the statement added.
“We have apologised for the failings identified in the complaints that led to this inspection and have fixed the issues that impacted residents as well as paying compensation to them.
“In the last year, the council has worked intensively with the Housing Ombudsman and with residents to improve the way we respond to complaints and tackle any issues raised, to ensure we provide the best possible service to all tenants and leaseholders.
“We’re pleased that the ombudsman has recognised that the council has made significant changes to remedy past failings. The report acknowledges the ‘significant transformation’ that has taken place in the last 12 months and recognised the introduction of a ‘culture of accountability and ownership’ in our services at all levels.
“We have made changes to senior leadership, introduced more robust governance arrangements, reviewed all high-risk complaints and put in place better lines of communication between complaints staff, neighbourhood officers and repairs contractors to help ensure we can remedy repairs as quickly as possible.”
Lambeth’s statement further said: We know there is much still to do to deliver the quality and consistency of services that residents deserve, but the improvements recognised in this report show that that work is underway and it will continue.
Improving our housing services for residents is a top priority for the council, as we are one of the largest council landlords in the country. However, the scale and condition of our housing stock, much of it built in the 1960s and 1970s, makes this very challenging, particularly when government policy has moved away from investing in improving social housing.
“We are fully committed to improving all the homes that the council manages, but record construction inflation, government funding cuts and restrictions on council income all make that much harder. We will continue to lobby the government to invest in good, warm, affordable and sustainable homes, while carrying out the improvements necessary to deliver a better service for Lambeth residents.”
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