It’s more than seven years since the Localism Act 2011 transferred responsibility for housing management disputes in local government to the Housing Ombudsman.
This brought almost 1.8 million council-owned homes within our jurisdiction. The impact, though, is much greater – and much has changed.
The role of an ombudsman is to promote positive change as well as resolve individual disputes. So, as the specialist Housing Ombudsman, we are able to share insights and learning across all 2,500 landlords, to the benefit of the five million households who can access our scheme.
We also have a strong focus on facilitating the early resolution of complaints before formal investigation.
We are making a real difference, but our ambition is to make the service faster, as well as more transparent and accessible, and do more to share the knowledge and insights with our members. Last year, we consulted on a revised scheme and new business plan. This year, I would draw attention to three areas.
The first is determination times, the issue ombudsmen are challenged about most. Ours are averaging six months – significantly faster than a few years ago – and our goal now is to reduce this to the fastest average case-handling rate on record for us, moving to effectively half the current rate over the next two years.
“One complaint can signal a wider problem”
This needs to be done in a planned way, with more resource, while simultaneously allowing us to maintain the quality of our decision-making.
However, our determination rates also include the time taken by landlords to submit evidence to us. Here, performance is patchy; evidence is submitted late in at least a quarter of cases, although we believe the proportion is significantly higher.
We want to work with landlords to address this – it means us being clear about what evidence we really require, but also landlords respecting submission deadlines. Without us addressing this effectively, together, dispute resolution will be unnecessarily prolonged and trust in the process will be undermined.
The second area to consider is that one complaint can signal a wider problem. We want to strengthen our scheme so we can conduct further investigations beyond the initial complaint, to establish whether a failure could be a systemic issue.
Any failing found will be referred to the Regulator of Social Housing, maintaining a clear distinction between our roles. I strongly believe this is an important role for an ombudsman to undertake – but it is also important for us to share lessons to prevent similar issues arising in the future.
This brings me to our third priority – expanding our activities to promote positive change in the sector. I am keen to ensure all councils understand our work to facilitate the early resolution of complaints, and for us to share more of our knowledge through thematic reports, publishing case studies and sharing our insightful data. We will shortly be publishing a new report on leaseholder issues, following a similar report on repairs last year.
Having worked in local government, I know the pressures and its evolving role; for instance, should we expect access to redress for households where the homelessness duty has been discharged into the private sector? What about the growing role of housing companies?
This is the debate we should have, so redress – and learning its lessons – are a core part of a healthy housing system.