Housing Ombudsman orders council to pay £18.8k to tenants it failed

The ombudsman found three ‘severe maladministration’ failings. One case involves a woman who was forced to sofa-surf after the council failed to address her five-year long complaints of anti-social behaviour, reports Marco Marcelline

Waltham Forest Town Hall

Waltham Forest Council has been ordered to pay £18,800 in compensation for three separate housing failings. 

The Housing Ombudsman today made three findings of “severe maladminstration” in regards to its handling of a damp and mould case, its response to a succession application following the death of a tenant’s mother, and its dealing of a five-year-long anti-social behaviour case.

The first finding of severe maladministration was in the case of a council tenant and her family, who had to wait eleven months for the council to arrange an inspection of their mould-infested home.

According to the Ombudsman, after the resident first reported the problem the council closed the case without doing any repairs or letting the resident know the case was closed. After an eleven month wait for an inspection of the property, the resident and her family, which included an autistic son, were made to wait a further month for any works to be planned. 

The Ombudsman also found that the council failed to consider the needs of her autistic son when the works were finally arranged. The resident and her family had asked the council about moving whilst works were ongoing but did not receive a reply, and the family eventually moved out into a caravan due to the conditions at the flat. The lack of attention to their needs constituted a failure in the council’s due regard to its duties set out in the Equality Act 2010, the Ombudsman found.

During the works, contractors moved living room furniture into upstairs bedrooms and the council did not address concerns expressed by the family about whether there was enough room to live. The failure to “proactively communicate with the resident throughout the situation had a “significant” detrimental emotional and physical impact on the resident. The council was ordered to pay the resident £2,737 in compensation, in addition to an apology from a senior council member, and for refresher training in complaint handling.

The council was also ordered to pay a resident £4,750 for failing for seven years to secede their mother’s tenancy to them when she died. This meant that council tax, and housing benefit accounts went unadjusted during this time, causing the resident a “significant” impact. It took until a fraud check for positive action to be taken on the issue.

In its findings the Ombudsman added that the failings in this case “were compounded by the [council’s] poor responses and incorrect notices” and that they had ignored legislation brought in during the pandemic that required a minimum of four months’ notice to quit a tenancy.

The Ombudsman ruled that the impact on the resident in this case could have been avoided “had [the council] acted in accordance with its own policies and considered the exercise of reasonable discretion in the handling after its error and delay.

The council was also ordered to pay £11,300 in compensation to a resident who resorted to sofa-surfing after dealing with anti-social behaviour (ASB) and gang activity at her council property for five years. 

According to the Ombudsman, the resident endured “years of feeling unsafe in her home, scared of what might happen to her or her young children, and suffered a significant decline in her mental wellbeing”. 

The council, it was found, did not effectively respond to her request for a move, and did not mount an urgent response to her complaints in accordance with its own ASB policy. Instead of taking ownership of the case, the council continually referred the resident back to the police while failing to identify the risks presented to her through a risk assessment or agree on an effective action plan, the Ombudsman said.

In addition to the £11,300 compensation, the council’s chief executive was asked to provide a written apology to the resident, as well as conduct an internal review of a number of policies in relation to ASB.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “I recognise the challenges the housing crisis and resources are presenting to landlords. However, this context cannot excuse some of the failings in these cases, which led to significant impact on residents who were, in different ways, vulnerable.

“Running throughout these cases were missed opportunities by the landlord to put things right for the resident and rebuild the relationship.

“Instead, a lack of clarity around responsibilities and actions taken, or outstanding, alongside delays or poor communication compounded the issues and resulted in considerable distress to the residents.

“Our recent Spotlight report on attitudes, respect and rights highlighted the need for landlords to adhere to their duties under the Equality Act 2010. One of these cases in particular shows the human impact of not doing so for landlords.

“I’d urge all landlords to take in those recommendations from the report and implement them to improve services and responses to residents.

Peter O’Kane, from Waltham Forest Housing Network said: “I am aware of a pattern of failure to address damp and mould problems as a result of poor management by the council of contractor performance.  This is partly a result of failing to address the underlying cause.  Operatives called out often know what has to be done. But the type of works needed to be effective may not be authorised by the Repairs Contractor Morgan Sindall.  This can result in a series of call-outs over time which will end up costing more.    

“A damp and mould taskforce was set up in December 2022. Since then there have been more surveyor visits, but the council has not produced any convincing evidence showing tenants that things have actually improved on the ground.  Indeed without effective follow through the surveyor visits may waste tenants time and money. The pattern of ineffective works, delays, poor repairs, and contract management by the council and refusal to compensate tenants for damage to their possessions continues.”

He added: “Good intentions by the council but continued poor delivery.”

In its learning statement, the council said it “fully accepts” the Housing Ombudsman’s findings and apologised “unreservedly to the residents who were affected” by the three documented failings. 

The statement continued: “A significant service transformation programme has been underway for the past year. The learnings from these cases have been used to make sure we are listening to our residents’ voices and have informed the improvement to services that we have made.”

Responding to the first finding, cabinet member for housing and regeneration Ahsan Khan said: “We know that in this case we did not meet the resident’s expectations to resolve the issues they experienced with damp and mould and we apologise for the poor service they received.

“We have taken on board the ombudsman’s recommendations about how we can improve the way we work. This includes better communication with contractors to ensure repairs are done on time and to a high standard, and establishing a dedicated damp and mould taskforce to tackle this vital issue.”

In regards to the ASB case, Cllr Khan said: “We apologise unreservedly to the resident for this unacceptable experience. Ensuring that people who are suffering from the impact of ASB is a priority and we are determined to learn from this case so that it cannot be repeated.

“We have accepted the ombudsman’s findings and have already implemented a new ASB procedure for officers to help them deal effectively with residents’ concerns. This includes a requirement for action plans outlining the details of what we and our partners are doing to tackle ASB to be shared with residents so they can be reassured that we do take the issue seriously. Extra training on complaints handling has also been given to all managers in the housing department.”

You can read the full report from the Housing Ombudsman here