27 Oct 23
Underlying issues at Islington Council such as a “disjointed” approach to complaints and a “lack of clear ownership’ is leading to problems drifting and persisting, the Housing Ombudsman has said in a report on its special investigation into the London borough.
The Ombudsman issued 89 findings across 30 determinations in the report. In each case under review, 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%.
In one case a disabled resident was 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.
It has also ordered Islington to pay a total of £66,441, an average of over £2,000 per case. Over half of this (£33,792.49) was for complaints about property condition.
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 led 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.
Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, reported that Islington had taken action in several areas, had sought to monitor the effectiveness of these additional measures and had been able to provide clear evidence of the impact these were having.
He said: “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”
Blakeway highlighted that Islington’s record keeping needed ‘fundamental improvement’ and said that the recommendations set out in the Ombudsman’s Knowledge and Information Management report would be of particular interest.
He committed to continuing to monitor the compliance with the recommendations set out in the report and would work with the landlord to help embed those improvements for residents.
Islington Council said it fully accepted the Ombudsman’s report and recommendations in a learning statement, stating that, as a landlord, the council wanted everyone in Islington to have a safe, decent, and genuinely affordable place to call home. Tenants and leaseholders deserve a high-quality service, it said, and the council expressed deep regret that this hadn’t always been delivered 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,” Islington said.
“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 the council set up a Housing Improvement Board to raise standards and respond to new regulatory requirements. It will reportedly 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 a new resident empowerment framework, this will help transform the housing services over the next two years so they’re of the highest standard. Islington will aim to deliver services as if they are being provided to an important member of its own family.
- Getting repairs right. The landlord is focussed on improving communication and working more effectively. It is running additional training for all repairs staff on customer service and learning from mistakes and implementing new processes on missed appointments and cancellations. The landlord has brought in more staff where needed and have increased preventative investment around damp, mould and leaks.
- Delivering a five-point-plan on damp and mould. While Islington said it was pleased the Ombudsman noted progress, it was seeking to avoid complacence. The report and new government guidance were being used to strengthen the response, including trialling new approaches like remote monitoring sensors, and would be employed to assist in applying learning across all housing services.
- Tackling anti-social behaviour (ASB). A council-wide review of the ASB services is being undertaken and the council is redesigning them to improve resident experience. It is making it easier to report ASB and will build on this through a new approach to housing management and better use of available enforcement options.
- Transforming its complaints service. Having created a dedicated housing complaints service, invested in additional staff and training, the council said it was focussing on improving processes for quicker decision making. Islington is also introducing a new digital complaints management system to improve oversight and is committed to learning from complaints as part of a wider culture change programme.
Islington said it would continue to report on progress and hold itself accountable to the Housing Scrutiny Committee. The authority is also establishing a Resident Service Improvement Group to make sure residents’ voices are at the heart of this work.
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