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Ombudsman issues special report on Birmingham City Council ​

The Housing Ombudsman has urged Birmingham City Council to make robust changes to its “fundamentally flawed” complaints handling.
Housing Ombudsman and Birmingham city council logos

The Housing Ombudsman has urged Birmingham City Council to make robust changes to its “fundamentally flawed” complaints handling in a special report that was issued following concerns about its complaint handling and compensation.

The Ombudsman used its systemic powers to conduct a further investigation beyond an initial complaint that may indicate wider service failure.

The investigation was initiated by a case where the Ombudsman found severe maladministration for delays in repairing an extensive water leak that caused damage to a resident’s property. Th In contravention of the Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code, the landlord failed to offer any compensation for the distress and inconvenience caused to the resident.

The report is based on complaints made to Birmingham City Council that were brought to the Ombudsman for investigation over a six-month period from March 2022. The Ombudsman made 25 findings across these cases and found maladministration in 24 of them, including five findings of severe maladministration. This represents a maladministration rate of 96%.

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

  • Repairs – The aims of the landlord’s repairs policy were not met in practice, and residents had to make multiple attempts to get repairs resolved, often over a prolonged period. The report’s recommendations focus on how the landlord can improve triaging repairs requests, reviewing repairs progress with contractors, and taking a proactive approach to repairs.
  • Record keeping – The landlord’s response to repair requests and complaints showed the impact of poor record keeping. The landlord had no framework in place for the record keeping and the expectations on its staff and contractors. This is a significant weakness in the landlord’s approach and the cause of repeated service failure. Recommendations included developing a framework and an action plan to ensure better external and cross-departmental communications.
  • Complaint handling – The landlord’s complaints policy failed to comply with many of the requirements of the Complaint Handling Code, meaning there was little chance of individual complaints being handled appropriately. The report recommended the landlord update its complaint process to comply with the Code and then self-assess against it to detail how it will tackle cases of non-compliance.
  • Compensation – The landlord’s complaints policy did not allow compensation for distress, inconvenience, time and trouble. It also said it could not make payments where the landlord decided there was no liability, which is entirely false.  In one case the landlord initially refused to pay a financial remedy direct to the resident, instead wishing to offset it against rent arrears. The Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies is clear that compensation awarded by this Service should not be offset against arrears. The report recommends a new policy should be created so that a resident does not have to pursue a separate compensation claim.

The landlord engaged with the Ombudsman throughout and accepted it got things wrong and needed improvement. The landlord says it has already taken steps toward this by acting on orders from the Ombudsman. Regular meetings with the landlord will be held to ensure compliance with these recommendations.

“Our wider investigation reveals how the landlord’s current approach to handling complaints is fundamentally flawed.

“At every point residents are met with increasing challenge to get the landlord to put things right, while the lack of adequate policies, procedures and governance combined with limited learning from these issues means the landlord repeats the same mistakes. 

“This has often led to a collapse in trust between residents and the landlord. Some residents faced living for years in homes that required repair, making repeated attempts to get the landlord and its contractors to act decisively. In one case the resident made repeated disrepair claims for over 10 years.

“The landlord’s inadequate record keeping inevitably lead to delays and incomplete responses, forcing residents to complain, but our investigation found residents were often refused a rightful remedy.

“Effective learning from complaints is a core element of effective governance. Unfortunately, there was limited evidence of learning from complaints and procedures remained unchanged until the Ombudsman became involved.  

“The landlord has accepted our recommendations and taken steps to address the issues identified. How the landlord responds will demonstrate whether it can fundamentally address these issues and embed change across a large organisation .

“This landlord is not alone in facing these challenges, and there are lessons for the wider sector from this report.  I continue to see cases involving these fundamental issues that cut across every aspect of a resident’s interaction with a landlord.”

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman

This report provides insight to help the landlord strengthen its complaint handling and address the substantive issues giving rise to complaints, to help extend fairness to other residents and prevent complaints in future.

When the Housing Ombudsman issues a special report, it invites the landlord to provide a short statement on the lessons learnt and its progress in addressing them.

Birmingham City Council learning statement

Birmingham City Council is the largest local authority social housing landlord in England with over 60,000 homes and carries out over 250,000 repairs per year.

Following the historical cases highlighted in the report, we have progressed in terms of improving the service for tenants and this will continue through our Transformation Programme and the new Housing Strategy.

The findings of a recent independent review and the recommendations made by the Housing Ombudsman in the Special Report have been incorporated into a detailed action plan which focusses on addressing process inefficiencies in its response to repairs, record keeping and complaint handling.

A new corporate complaints process was introduced in May 2021 which preceded the date of the cases included in the Paragraph 49 investigation. This included bringing in additional dedicated resources to deliver a consistently high service standard, reducing delays and improving the quality of responses.

As a result of performance issues, we terminated a failing repairs contractor in March 2022. We are working with our Repairs Contractors to develop process improvements which will help mitigate against future service failure.

We welcome the opportunity to work with the Housing Ombudsman during the implementation of their recommendations and we are fully committed to delivering service improvements for the benefit of all Birmingham City Council tenants.

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