Learning from housing complaints

Councillors perform a dual role on housing complaints. 

They will provide advice to their constituents when they experience problems. But some will also be responsible for governing or scrutinising the performance of the council as a landlord. 

In light of this latter role, the Housing Ombudsman Service recently produced guidance for councillors and governing body members. Boards, committees and scrutiny panels perform an important role in ensuring a stock-owning authority has a positive complaint handling culture. 

This means several things but at its heart is ensuring there is a high level of awareness and accessibility to the complaints process, that it is fair and resolution focused, and that learning is captured and demonstrated. 

We know many governing bodies are doing this successfully already, thereby strengthening their relationship with residents.

In our guidance, we share some of the best practice we have seen, as well as outline our expectations of governing bodies and how complaints information can support them to improve service delivery. 

Housing complaints should perform a strategic role, providing an essential source of intelligence on evolving risks and performance, potentially identifying issues which are not being picked up elsewhere, as well as the insights that are essential to improving resident services.

An important starting point for councillors is the Housing Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code, published last year. This code is a condition of membership of our scheme and sets out the principles and standards for the effective handling of housing complaints. 

We’ve had really positive engagement with the code since its publication, and we know many councils undertook a purposeful self-assessment against it. 

“Housing complaints should perform a strategic role, providing an essential source of intelligence on evolving risks and performance”

Those assessments have been published, providing an opportunity to share best practice and learning between landlords. 

Our guidance builds on this code, to consider how complaints can feature in the mission, risk analysis and resident focus of the landlord. It also suggests some key data that members will want to see to understand performance.  

The guidance also sets out ongoing engagement with complaints and our work as an ombudsman, including governance ensuring compliance with our orders. 

Since the start of this year, we have issued ‘complaint handling failure orders’, including on complaints still within the landlord’s procedure, providing real-time intelligence on complaints where the resident is struggling to make progress.

Each quarter, we report the orders we have issued, and governing bodies will want assurance any issues are being addressed.

Finally, our guidance sets out the different tools and information we offer councillors and board members to support their work. This ranges from the annual landlord performance reports we publish to individual decisions on casework. 

Increasingly, we are publishing thematic reports into areas where we see common challenges across the social housing sector. Recent reports have covered cladding, and heating and hot water complaints. 

The latter report, for instance, identified real issues with heat networks where landlords can struggle to respond effectively to problems. Our next report will look at damp and mould. 

These reports provide important recommendations for landlords to consider, and governing bodies have a crucial role ensuring they do. 

Indeed, while there is high compliance with our orders, I’d strongly encourage landlords to consider the collective learning provided by our decisions. This includes asking whether your approach is working and how can your policies be improved.

 ‘Effective involvement of governing bodies: best practice guidance for landlords’ can be downloaded at www.housing-ombudsman.org.uk/news/. For the Housing Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code, see www.housing-ombudsman.org.uk/landlords-info/complaint-handling-code/

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