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Landlords “still have learning to do” in dealing with cladding complaints

21 April 2023

HOUSING OMBUDSMAN Richard Blakeway has highlighted the current state of play in relation to fire safety and cladding-related casework handled by the organisation, in tandem suggesting that landlords “still have learning to do” when it comes to dealing with complaints received from tenants.

Two years on from the publication of a special Spotlight Report on this issue, the Housing Ombudsman has now moved to publish several examples of casework relating to cladding and associated fire safety complaints in a bid to share the lessons learned with the wider sector.

That Spotlight Report, itself focused on dealing with cladding cases, duly highlighted three key lessons for the sector, including the need to provide a clear roadmap of landlord actions for all residents, instigate effective lines of communication and address individual circumstances.

Responses from landlords in relation to cladding cases have improved since that document was issued, but common themes – among them that all-important communication with residents – remain “problematic”.

The Housing Ombudsman notes that landlords “are not always effective” in providing residents with key information and explanations of their priorities in this area, with poorer communication evidenced in those buildings classed as being ‘low risk’ as well as continuing issues in terms of sales.

Case Studies

Published every fortnight, the Housing Ombudsman’s casebook now totals more than 3,100 decisions and shows the range of issues to be considered in parallel with the types of outcomes materialising in the wake of investigations.

One Housing Group, for example, responded effectively to an EWS-1 Form request. The landlord gave the resident accurate and reasonable advice about its prioritisation of the resident’s block for remediation works, progress to secure funding for these works and the potential impact of not being able to provide an EWS-1 Form in the meantime.

The Housing Ombudsman goes on to highlight a maladministration finding for L&Q in which a risk-based approach to fire safety meant the landlord did not consider the impact of its prioritisation policy on residents. The landlord’s strict adherence to the policy meant the resident concerned was likely unable to sell their property for a significant period of time.

A service failure by Poplar HARCA for both its fire safety communication and its response to a resident’s request to reimburse costs for an unsuccessful re-mortgage is also highlighted. The landlord “missed opportunities” to effectively communicate and did not appropriately and directly inform the resident about remedial works that had been identified, which would impact the provision of an EWS-1 Form and mortgages. The landlord delayed imparting this detail for several months, wasting time and incurring unnecessary costs for the resident.

Another case is detailed where communications around fire safety works realised a maladministration finding for the Riverside Group. The landlord “repeatedly failed” to update residents following an intrusive inspection and in the months that followed. In addition, there was no evidence of a policy around buying back shared ownership properties, and no details on its website concerning its position on reverse staircasing and buying back properties. This further left the resident in limbo through no fault of his own.

Details have been published about a maladministration case involving L&Q focused on a resident asking the landlord to buy back their property. While the decision not to buy back the property was appropriate, the handling of the request was not. Communication and record keeping about the panel hearing relating to the decision was “unreasonable”. Despite being told it was not a viable option, the landlord continued to suggest sub-letting as a solution. In short, the landlord “did not address” the resident’s individual circumstances.

The How Thames Valley Housing Association provided reasonable redress after a complaint about fire safety concerns and the associated impact on selling. Fire safety and a delay in providing an EWS-1 Form was of “serious concern” for the resident involved and rendered progress on any sale “frustrating”. However, there was no lasting impact on the resident. The landlord recognised its failings and duly offered reasonable compensation.

A maladministration case is listed involving a request for an EWS-1 Form directed to Hyde Housing. Although the landlord advised the resident of practical difficulties with the process and provided general information, for over a year it delayed “unreasonably” in terms of offering the resident an explanation as to how his block had been prioritised and a likely timescale on when this would occur.

A case involving the Newlon Housing Trust is one in which the Housing Ombudsman recouped all of the costs that the resident incurred in relation to the sale of the property, which she may not have had to if the landlord had correctly informed her of the Government’s guidance. There were “missed opportunities” by the landlord to help the resident, while the lack of communication impacted the resident’s ability to make an informed decision regarding the sale of the property, which is deemed to have been “unsatisfactory”.

Exceptionally challenging period

Richard Blakeway explained: “This has been an exceptionally challenging period for both residents and landlords. While landlords will understandably feel swept up in a national crisis, the personal crisis this has created for those residents affected, through no fault of their own, is profound and reflected across our casework.”

Blakeway continued: “Landlords have handled cases best where the communication has been clear and crisp. This requires openness with residents, the delivery of accurate information and empathy. Too often, as is the case in relation to other complaint areas, poor communication has compounded other failings. Notably, poor communication can hamper sales processes and undermine the ability of residents to make informed decisions during what has been, and continues to be, a very stressful and complex situation.”

Further, Blakeway observed: “These cases reflect the changes some landlords have made over the past two years, wherein the scale of the challenge has been acute for some, but they also highlight the fact that, in some areas at least, landlords still have learning to do.”

Blakeway is pleased that some of the learning from previous orders delivered by the Housing Ombudsman is making a difference and has outlined the case of one landlord introducing a reverse staircasing policy following the Housing Ombudsman’s decision and then further strengthening that same policy when it was raised in a later investigation.

In conclusion, Blakeway commented: “I would urge landlords to revisit the key learning from our Spotlight Report and combine this with a renewed focus on the importance of proactive communications, effective knowledge and information management. There absolutely needs to be a real focus on individual resident concerns.”

*Further information is available online at www.housing-ombudsman.co.uk

**Read the 24-page Special Report entitled ‘Dealing with Cladding Complaints: Three Key Lessons for Social Landlords’ online