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Housing Ombudsman finds empowering staff is key

Empowering staff key to improving housing service delivery, finds Ombudsman’s special report on Islington Council.

The Housing Ombudsman has released its special investigation report into Islington Council, finding that underlying issues such as a ‘disjointed’ approach to complaints and a ‘lack of clear ownership’ is leading to problems drifting and persisting.

In the report, the Ombudsman issued 89 findings across 30 determinations. In every case the Ombudsman upheld at least one aspect of the resident’s complaint and in almost half of cases found severe maladministration on at least one of the issues raised by the resident. The landlord has a severe maladministration rate of 24.7% which is nearly four times the national average of 6.7%.

Among the cases was a disabled resident unable to use their ground floor wet room for months due to a lack of repairs while another resident’s complaint was stuck in the landlord’s system for three years. Another complaint saw a resident with mental health problems stuck without a working key fob for her building for ten months – something that should have been resolved within 24 hours.

In every case concerning complaint handling the Ombudsman found maladministration, while the landlord’s 83% maladministration rate for property condition was above the national average and the 94% for complaints about anti-social behaviour was far above the national average of 52%.

Overall, the Ombudsman made 186 orders or recommendations to put things right.

The Ombudsman identified three key themes and set out a series of recommendations:

  • Disrepair – There were unreasonable delays within repairs in terms of both acknowledgement and taking action to resolve the issues. The Ombudsman also found that ineffective appointments were a key factor causing delay and inconvenience, and disrespected the value of residents’ time. Communication was another poor aspect of repairs jobs, with examples including limited notice period of operatives attending, not keeping the resident updated or not notifying the resident they are attending at all. Among its recommendations, the Ombudsman has told the landlord to review its policies to include a risk assessment specifically with vulnerabilities in mind.
  • Anti-social behaviour (ASB) – The landlord approached noise reports using its ASB policies and procedures, but could not demonstrate it followed them. Sometimes long-term patterns of disturbance went unresolved. If the landlord deemed the problem not to meet certain policy thresholds, it offered no alternatives. The Ombudsman also found that often the landlord did not conduct monthly reviews of its cases or work with third parties. There was also a lack of enforcement, poor communication and poor records and documents relating to ASB. The Ombudsman has recommended the landlord self-assess against its Spotlight report on noise and improve monitoring of compliance by officers on its policies in this area.
  • Complaint Handling – The landlord does not do enough to promote its complaints process to residents nor learn from complaints that do make it through the process. Until March 2022, the landlord operated an unnecessarily protracted complaint process which has now been amended to two stages. After these delays, which were sometimes measured in years, the responses were of poor quality and contained statements it could not back up with evidence. This often lead to the landlord not recognising where it has failed and therefore not offering sufficient redress for the distress and inconvenience caused. A lack of sincere apologies also fostered more feelings of distrust. The Ombudsman has recommended all staff undertake mandatory complaint handling training and for the organisation to appoint a Member Responsible for Complaints to improve oversight.
  • Underlying cross-cutting issues – Throughout all of the above, underlying cultural issues within the landlord continually let it down. This included being reactive rather than proactive, a clear lack of ownership or responsibility taken and poor record keeping across the board.

The landlord had already sought to change a number of policies and procedures, as well as allocating more resources, to address the issues identified in our casework.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “The landlord has taken action in several areas, has sought to monitor the effectiveness of these additional measures and has been able to provide clear evidence of the impact these are having.

“The focus of the leadership on embedding change is evident and encouraging.

“Nonetheless, many of the underlying themes we have identified are present in multiple individual cases, each contributing to the resident’s poor experience.

“The way in which the same issues recur indicates failure to learn from complaints. We have also identified a lack of managerial oversight to ensure that officers are appropriately capable and empowered to follow the policies, procedures and guidance that the landlord does have in place

“Record keeping needs fundamental improvement and the recommendations set out in our Knowledge and Information Management report will be of particular interest.

“We will continue to monitor the compliance with the recommendations set out in this report and will work with the landlord to help embed those improvements for residents.”

In all special investigation reports, the Ombudsman invites the landlord to provide a learning statement.

Islington Council learning statement:

We fully accept the Ombudsman’s report and recommendations.

We want everyone in Islington to have a safe, decent, and genuinely affordable place to call home. Our tenants and leaseholders deserve a high-quality service, and we deeply regret that we haven’t always delivered this in the past.

We’ve been working to put things right and believe this report further clarifies the actions and resources needed, building on the external critical appraisal we’ve sought from partners over the last two years.

We’ve committed to delivering a number of improvements in an extremely challenging environment of long-term underinvestment in social housing, the challenges our residents face with the cost-of-living crisis, and a severe shortage of affordable housing in one of London’s densest Boroughs.

In June 2022 we set up a Housing Improvement Board to raise standards and respond to new regulatory requirements. We will build on this and deliver the Ombudsman’s recommendations through an expanded Improvement Plan, including:

  • Introducing a new, place-based approach to housing management. This will mean residents have a single point of contact and staff take ownership of their patch. Alongside our new resident empowerment framework, this will help us transform our housing services over the next two years so they’re of the highest standard. We will aim to deliver services as if they are being provided to an important member of our own family.
  • Getting repairs right. We’re focussed on improving communication and working more effectively. We’re running additional training for all repairs staff on customer service and learning from mistakes, and implementing new processes on missed appointments and cancellations. We’ve brought in more staff where needed and have increased preventative investment around damp, mould and leaks.
  • Delivering our five-point-plan on damp and mould. While we’re pleased the Ombudsman notes our progress, we’re not complacent. We’re using this report and new government guidance to strengthen our response, including trialling new approaches like remote monitoring sensors, and will apply learning across all housing services.
  • Tackling anti-social behaviour (ASB). We’ve undertaken a council-wide review of our ASB services and are redesigning them to improve resident experience. We are making it easier to report ASB and will build on this through our new approach to housing management and better use of available enforcement options.
  • Transforming our complaints service. We’ve created a dedicated housing complaints service, invested in additional staff and training and are improving processes for quicker decision making. We’re introducing a new digital complaints management system to improve oversight and are committed to learning from complaints as part of a wider culture change programme.

We’ll continue to report on progress and hold ourselves accountable to our Housing Scrutiny Committee. Crucially, we are also establishing a Resident Service Improvement Group to make sure residents’ voices are at the heart of this work.

We welcome the Ombudsman’s recent call for significant investment in the sector and the acknowledgement that, until the housing crisis is addressed, challenges will continue. We look forward to working closely with the Ombudsman as we continue service improvements.


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