Improvements in its housing service made by Lambeth council, have not been “seen and felt” by residents, the Housing Ombudsman said today (11 January) in the report of an inspection of the council it carried out in October last year. However, it also said the council had created a “solid platform” for further improvement.
The inspection was launched after the Ombudsman remained dissatisfied at information provided by the council in response to earlier orders about complaint handling.
The council said it welcomed the report and that it had “engaged fully” with the inspection team. “We have used this process to positively identify areas of improvement in our services to residents,” the council said. “We accept the findings and commit to delivering the recommendations within three months.”
The Ombudsman said the inspection allowed it to hear directly from complaint handling staff and to understand the pressures the council is facing, as well as to identify inconsistencies in handling complaints. “This additional insight has been invaluable,” it added.
Lack of consistency included how the council logged complaints, with timescales that did not comply with the Ombudsman’s complaint handling code, and some complaints being dealt with by a separate “members’ enquiries” process.
“Furthermore, several members of staff told the Ombudsman different things about the same processes of closing complaints,” the report said.
While good progress had been made in some areas of complaint handling, for example reducing overdue complaints from 2,283 in April 2022 to 154 in November 2023, the Ombudsman said the council “is currently not resourced to adequately respond to the complaints it is handling through its existing process”.
This meant that its efforts to respond adequately to complaints “will only ever go so far”. Unless addressed, tenants would continue to have to contact the council several times to be heard and face unacceptable delays to complaints.
The inspection said the council needs to refocus on recurring issues that lead to complaints to the Ombudsman. These include not fulfilling commitments and not recognising the full impact of its failings and providing appropriate redress.
The council’s focus on the volume of outstanding complaints also meant its approach to learning from complaints and root cause analysis is underdeveloped, the report said.
Due to the “clear link” between the council’s approach to repairs and its complaint handling performance, the inspection also made recommendations around this, including making sure repairs records are more robust and considering vulnerabilities that tenants may have.
The Ombudsman welcomed the council’s own internal review that followed its investigation and built on some of its findings.
The Ombudsman said it would continue to hold the council to account through its casework and will review it in its next annual report. The Ombudsman produces such reports for any landlord it receives multiple complaints about.
“This inspection happened because two residents had to seek the Ombudsman’s intervention more than once to resolve complaints that we had previously upheld,” Housing Ombudsman Richard Blakeway said. “The landlord must ensure this is not repeated.”
He added that there are still too many residents receiving an “unacceptable service”.
The frustration of some residents was palpable at a “Meet the Ombudsman” session hosted by the council. “Effective complaint handling is a core component of rebuilding trust with residents,” Richard Blakeway said.
“By improving its learning from complaints and channelling its efforts into truly understanding the driving factors behind its complaints, the landlord will give itself every chance of improving.
“We commend the leadership of the landlord for the focus it has brought to resolving the problems which have beset it. The landlord has introduced a culture of accountability and ownership and a solid platform to now go further.
“There are already positive signs. The Ombudsman has not issued the landlord with a complaint handling failure order in over six months, having issued five last year. However, the steps the landlord has taken have yet to result in a more consistently positive resident experience.
“Crucially, the landlord needs to guard against what happens once the increased focus it currently has on its complaints and repairs services is removed.
“A transition to business as usual will bring with it risks of a return to the unacceptable performance seen in recent years.
“The landlord will need to put in place measures to identify and act on any decline in standards as early as possible.”
Lambeth council said it had apologised for the failings identified in the complaints that led to the inspection and had fixed issues that impacted residents as well as paying compensation to them.
In the past year, the council had “worked intensively” with the Ombudsman and with residents to improve the way it responds to complaints and tackle any issues raised, to ensure we provide the best possible service to all tenants and leaseholders.
“We’re pleased that the Ombudsman has recognised that the council has made significant changes to remedy past failings,” the council said.
“The report acknowledges the ‘significant transformation’ that has taken place in the last 12 months and recognised the introduction of a ‘culture of accountability and ownership’ in our services at all levels.
“We have made changes to senior leadership, introduced more robust governance arrangements, reviewed all high-risk complaints and put in place better lines of communication between complaints staff, neighbourhood officers and repairs contractors to help ensure we can remedy repairs as quickly as possible.”
As well as the reduction in overdue complaints from 2,283 in April 2022 to 154 in November 2023, the council said it had improved its performance so that 90% of appointments and 72% of repairs are carried out on time.
“We are clear that these numbers need to increase further,” the council said. “We know there is much still to do to deliver the quality and consistency of services that residents deserve, but the improvements recognised in this report show that that work is under way and it will continue.”
Lambeth is one of the largest council landlords in the country. It said improving housing services for residents is “a top priority.
However, it went on, “the scale and condition of our housing stock, much of it built in the 1960s and 1970s, makes this very challenging, particularly when government policy has moved away from investing in improving social housing.
“We are fully committed to improving all the homes that the council manages, but record construction inflation, government funding cuts and restrictions on council income all make that much harder.
“We will continue to lobby the government to invest in good, warm, affordable and sustainable homes, while carrying out the improvements necessary to deliver a better service for Lambeth residents.”