Southwark and Hammersmith and Fulham are the worst councils
Clarion and A2 Dominion top the housing associations with adverse rulings, while Peabody got the most complaints
By Harry Scoffin
Local authorities and housing associations are failing to recognise that residents who own their homes on a leasehold or shared ownership basis have “commit[ed] to a long-term relationship with their landlord”, the Housing Ombudsman has concluded.
In “A new lease of life”, a two-year review of complaints received by the government-backed housing dispute resolution service, social sector landlords were criticised for failing to handle leaseholder and shared owner complaints in a full and timely manner.
“This is one area where the sector appears to be consistently getting things wrong,” noted the highly critical report.
“This is a concern for the sector. Leaseholders and shared owners commit to a long-term relationship with their landlord. A poor experience of complaint handling can damage this relationship and sour a resident’s perception of their landlord.”
The Housing Ombudsman found that 72% of its cases between 2018 and 2020 led to findings of maladministration or partial maladministration on the part of the local authority or housing association, with “complaints often … ge[tting] stuck” as blurred lines of responsibility, poor institutional memory due to high staff turnover, and casual bookkeeping conspiring to create “significant distress” to residents.
Further hinting at an impersonal approach to customer service by social landlords, in the report’s discussion of nil valuations and the sector’s race to obtain EWS1 building safety certificates for lenders, housing providers are urged to consider requests for help on a case-by-case basis and “show empathy for residents trapped in these circumstances and to mitigate the impact where possible”.
Naming social landlords most found at fault for the first time, the Housing Ombudsman report reveals that repairs were the biggest area of discontent from leaseholders and shared owners in local authority housing, at 26%, with charges the second category of complaint at 16%.
By contrast, only a percentage point separates repairs and charges for leaseholders and shared owners living under housing associations.
Southwark was the worst performing council with 13 maladministration findings and 33 determinations, followed by Hammersmith and Fulham with 12 maladministration findings and 16 determinations.
Kieron Williams, cabinet member for housing and modernisation at Southwark Council, said:
“It’s inevitable that councils with large numbers of council flats will receive more leaseholder complaints than those with fewer, and as London’s largest social landlord it’s not surprising Southwark’s raw numbers are higher than other councils. We take any complaint extremely seriously, but it’s hard to see what useful conclusions can be drawn from these numbers, when 13 upheld complaints represent less than 0.1% of our leaseholder properties.”
In an email to LKP, Southwark has confirmed that it will not be agreeing to enter into judicial mediation before its legal department takes leaseholders through the property tribunal system, which Southwark Home Owners Council voted for unanimously at its annual conference in October 2019.
Clarion and A2Dominion had the joint highest number of maladministration findings, while Peabody had the most complaints.
On the subject of repairs, the Housing Ombudsman identifies that leaks are a major area of complaint. It added that “poor landlord record keeping” contributed to the high level of maladministration findings at 56%, citing one case where the housing provider was unable to produce documentation to evidence when it had sent contractors to attend to a leak nor confirm when the problem was finally solved.
The detailed assessment of the leaseholder and shared owner experience in the social sector advises landlords to adopt a key performance indicator on repairs to resolve resident dissatisfaction. It also recommends that they “ensure the correct operators attend with sufficient tools and training to undertake the repair in question” to boost responsiveness and the quality of workmanship.
The nature of leasehold ownership was also mentioned as a reason for the poor block management driving tenant complaints, with “multiple owners within a block and use of managing agents” a “complicating factor”, especially where “the resident’s landlord is not responsible for the repair causing the problem”.
Writing for Inside Housing magazine last month, the Law Commission’s Nick Hopkins and Bridge Stark-Wills observed that social landlords are often not the ultimate owner of a block of flats, or freeholder, but the head lessee, which means “navigating their way through the current leasehold regime is expensive, challenging and time-consuming”.
Comment 27/08/20 by Nick Hopkins and Bridget Stark-Wills Reforms to the leasehold system would improve social landlords’ experience, both as freeholders and head leaseholders of units in private blocks, write Nick Hopkins and Bridget Stark-Wills
This set-up can also lead to critical delays in pursuing snagging issues when the apartment building is still new. In recognition of this challenge, the Housing Ombudsman has recommended that social landlords be more upfront with leaseholders and shared owners regarding their policy on new-build defects, clarifying “whose responsibility it is to address problems during the defect period” and how residents should report faults.
“During the defect period residents are reliant on the landlord to pursue the developer. Landlords must pursue these issues effectively on their behalf,” the report said.
Where the Housing Ombudsman intervened in complaints brought by leaseholders and shared owners with social sector landlords, it ordered compensation to be paid in 68% of cases.
While the service may not necessarily be suited to big service charges disputes, it references a case where it secured a leaseholder £450 in compensation due to a landlord’s failure to respond to service charge queries and 6-time refusal to cooperate with the Housing Ombudsman.
In another case cited by the report that involved suboptimal gate repairs that exposed residents to illegal parking and burglaries for two years, complainants received £50 each.
The full report can be read here: