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Ombudsman publish special report into Southern Housing

Ombudsman's special report into Southern Housing Highlights risks around mergers with the landlord experiencing a lack of ownership on complaints.
Richard Blakeway (002)

The Housing Ombudsman has released its special investigation report into Southern Housing, finding a “lack of ownership within the landlord’s complaint-handling culture”. The report says the landlord’s approach during the merger did not “extend sufficiently to complaints handling and achieving a positive complaint handling culture”.

In this report, the Ombudsman issued determinations on 77 cases, making 184 findings with a maladministration rate of 79%. Regarding complaint handling, the maladministration rate was 92%. The report covers events occurring between October 2018 and September 2023, with 14 complaints involving events post-merger.

Amongst these cases was such lengthy delays in dealing with a leaking waste pipe that Environmental Health issued an Improvement Notice, as well as a lack of appropriate action following a risk assessment that was made after a resident was wielding a machete and threatening to set fire to the building.

The Ombudsman made 300 orders to make things right for residents.

It is clear the landlord identified that complaints and the associated issues were a risk pre-merger with it evident that one of the landlords was struggling with a huge backlog in repairs complaints, but the new entity did not act sufficiently or swiftly enough to mitigate this.

The report identified 7 key themes and made recommendations to improve in those areas:

  • Complaint handling –There was a lack of ownership in complaint handling, with a tendency towards handling complaints informally and a blurred line between complaints and service requests. While the landlord’s website was clear about its complaints policy, it was less transparent about how to make a complaint with generic email addresses that contributed to an undisciplined approach to complaint handling. The landlord’s post-merger complaints policy no longer contains an informal complaints process. However, the Ombudsman has seen recent examples at its pre-investigation stage which suggest the landlord may be drifting towards dealing with some complaints informally. The Ombudsman also found barriers to escalating complaints to stage 2, in particular seeing statements from staff saying they wanted to prevent them “wherever possible”. As part of its complaint handling recommendations, the Ombudsman has set out that the landlord implement a clearer, ‘one front door’ approach to receiving complaints, regardless of which ‘legacy’ organisation the home belonged to and ensure it has one system in which landlord staff can record complaints, escalation requests and responses.
  • Reasonable adjustments – In many of the cases we examined, the landlord had appropriate records of resident vulnerabilities. However, there were several examples where the landlord did not, and various cases where they were not appropriately acting on that knowledge when they had it. In one case this led to a resident with learning difficulties chasing a damp and mould complaint on multiple occasions, despite communications challenges they faced. This links to the recommendations in the Ombudsman’s Spotlight report on attitudes, respect and rights, with it being important to have all the R’s –  recognise, respond and record when dealing with vulnerabilities. Overall, the landlord records vulnerabilities appropriately, but should focus on the other two to produce an effective service. The Ombudsman has recommended the landlord update its Reasonable Adjustments policy and ensure there is one single, accessible, source of accurate knowledge of residents’ vulnerabilities and reasonable adjustments.
  • Unreasonable behaviour and contact restrictions – The cases reviewed suggest the landlord’s handling of unreasonable behaviour was broadly appropriate but sometimes the landlord failed to consistently follow the process it had imposed itself leading to confusion, or regularly review their appropriateness, with some restrictions in place for years . These restrictions often involved vulnerable residents and could lead to poorer communication. The Ombudsman has recommended the landlord revise its Unacceptable Behaviour Policy to set out how it complies with the Data Protection Act 2018, and details of when it might be appropriate to refer a landlord/tenant dispute to mediation, an advocacy service or other third party to help rebuild the relationship.
  • Risk management – The landlord needs to improve its risk management processes across the front-line services where we investigated complaints. This was particularly evident in complaints about anti-social behaviour (ASB) and damp and mould. This included not identifying resident vulnerabilities and the risk of further harm, or not acting on the outcome of its risk assessments. The Ombudsman has recommended the landlord put performance monitoring measures in place to ensure timely and accurate risk assessments are carried out in all ASB cases, as well as revising its repairs, void management, and any other relevant policies to include some of the learning from these cases.
  • Repairs – The landlord is aware its repairs service is responsible for many of the complaints it receives – this includes delays, missed appointments, poor communication, and poor contractor performance. The landlord says it has a repairs improvement plan is in place, including steps to manage the performance of contractors. However, cases seen by the Ombudsman do not support that contractors are the root cause of the problems. Instead, the Ombudsman saw evidence of a lack of proactive management of the repairs process by the landlord. In many cases, this is linked back to the lack of timescales given in the landlord’s repairs policy. The Ombudsman has recommended the landlord revises its policy to include timescales for non-emergency repairs, review its record keeping practices and those of its contractors, and finally to make sure that if emergency repairs are needed, that it considers temporary accommodation.
  • Managing agents and third parties – The landlord is not demonstrating responsibility or ownership in cases involving managing agents and third parties. The report found ineffective communication, a lack of management and poor chasing for updates from the landlord. The Ombudsman has recommended the landlord make its ‘Building Attributes Matrix’ an accessible information source that sets out which organisation is responsible for each service area on estates where it owns, manages, leases or sub-lets property.
  • Knowledge and information management – Repair problems were often compounded by poor record keeping, which then also impacted the handling of the resulting complaint. Where the report found poor record keeping in complaint handling, this had had a detrimental impact on resolving residents’ complaints once brought to the Ombudsman. Whilst some mitigations have taken place, the landlord has still not merged its systems, which will cause significant challenges in acting as one organisation. Among the recommendations, the Ombudsman has told the landlord to review its record keeping practices to ensure accurate and timely records of inspections and repairs are available to all relevant staff, including complaint handlers.

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

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “The leadership of the landlord has been open and reflective during our investigation, and the proactive steps it is taking should make a difference for residents in what is a challenging operating environment.

“The pressures on the sector means it is highly likely that more mergers will happen. This report exposes the challenges mergers can present to service areas and effective complaint handling. It therefore provides vital learning for the sector as well as the landlord itself.

“The lack of ownership within the complaint-handling culture of the landlord is the common thread across our findings. Integrating policy, processes and personnel can take time, and it is challenging to maintain effective service provision, including complaint handling, while experiencing the organisational pressures and uncertainty that a merger brings.

“Generally, it is much more likely to succeed and embed if it is supported at the highest level of an organisation with a clear plan and vision for complete integration. However, the landlord’s vision for the merger did not extend sufficiently to complaints handling and achieving a positive complaint handling culture across the new organisation.

“Mergers do not immediately solve problems with service provision or any problems with organisational culture unless consumer focus is also part of the merger process. Our Spotlight on knowledge and information management found that where merging landlords already had existing shortfalls, such as those the landlord identified pre-merger, there is a significant risk of those problems remaining unresolved, getting lost, or becoming even bigger.

“These issues are often evident in complaints and impede an effective response to them as well as steps to prevent future complaints. This can also undermine any strengths in complaint handling which the organizations are bringing to the merger, as happened here, resulting in a missed opportunity to build on them.

“I would recommend that landlords who are exploring a merger, or have recently been through one, understand and test themselves against our recommendations to identify any changes they could implement to prevent complaints.”

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

Southern Housing learning statement

We’re truly sorry to all residents who’ve experienced service failures, including the 67 residents that this report shows we let down. Throughout this investigation process, we’ve worked proactively and collaboratively with the Ombudsman and his team, and we welcome the learning from this report.

76 of the 77 determinations reviewed in this investigation pre-date our merger in December 2022. The Ombudsman’s 2022-23 data shows that at merger, Optivo had a maladministration rate of 3.5 per 10,000 homes. This was less than a third of the London average of 11.5, and just over half the national average of 6.8. Whilst SHG had a higher-than-average rate of 13.1, the combined rate for the two organisations was a third lower than the London average.

We endorse the Ombudsman’s call for a long-term plan for housing in their ‘Relationship of Equals’ Spotlight Report – and their recognition that parts of the sector are “at breaking point”. The social landlord cost model was never designed to eliminate service failures. There’s little chance of this changing given unprecedented financial pressures on the sector. The important thing is that we acknowledge failures promptly, apologise, put things right, and learn lessons.

Since the merger we’ve introduced a number of changes, including a customer service training programme for all colleagues and we’re introducing improvements in repairs and maintenance. We’ll complete the integration of our systems by April 2025 enabling us to realise further merger benefits and deliver services to a consistently higher standard.

We’ll use the report together with our long-standing commitment to resident governance to drive further improvements. We’re unique amongst large landlords in having four resident places on our board. In addition, more than 100 residents are involved in our resident governance and scrutiny structure and many more participate informally. This has made a huge difference to how we operate including changing the way we manage damp and mould. We’re confident that our commitment to listening to residents and cocreating service improvements will enable us to achieve the standard of services residents tell us they want.

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