Improving the complaints handling process for social housing residents

Richard Blakeway, 03 February 2023

Last year the government brought in a new law making it easier for residents to access the Housing Ombudsman if they remain unhappy with their landlord’s final response on their complaint.

The democratic filter required residents to contact an MP, local councillor or a designated Tenant Panel before raising an issue with the Ombudsman. Alternatively, residents had to wait eight weeks if they had exhausted all options available through their landlord’s complaints process before it was sent to us.

This sent a strong message to residents that the Ombudsman was the last resort, this is something I’ve heard repeatedly at resident forums.

It’s important to remember that elected representatives’ power and approach differ hugely from the Ombudsman, and in reality, around 93% of residents waited the full two-month period.

Removing the democratic filter will ensure that social housing residents are not disadvantaged and have direct access to an Ombudsman for independent and impartial dispute resolution.

This significant change is part of wider reforms for tenants and landlords as part of the government’s Social Housing White Paper.

What’s changed?

Wider representation

Elected representatives still have a hugely important role to play. As housing associations will know, they will frequently be involved in complaints, and typically I hear MPs refer to ‘70% of their casework being housing related’.

Under the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, MPs, councillors and others can formally act as resident representatives with their agreement on individual cases. This advocacy role is important and we have increased our liaison with elected representatives to explain the Ombudsman’s role.

Tenant groups

While designated tenant panels are no longer part of our formal process, it does not mean tenant groups don’t have a role to play. Fewer than 5% of Ombudsman member landlords had a designated tenant panel, but under the Complaint Handling Code residents can be involved at review under a range of inclusive processes.

Our Spotlight reports often recommend landlords should engage with residents to improve the tone and effectiveness of communication in the area of focus. Last year, we published a noise report setting out recommendations for improved neighbourhood policies, and residents are integral to that. The report on damp and mould stressed the importance of creating better engagement with residents on this issue, and in light of the tragic death of Awaab Ishak, these recommendations are vital for landlords to put into action.

Many landlords have also created resident groups to support the self-assessment against the code, giving residents an invaluable voice on the complaints procedure. We asked our own 600 strong Resident Panel if they had been involved in the annual self-assessment. Most said no, but they wanted the opportunity to get involved.

There is more work for social landlords to do, but housing associations can engage with residents through Together with Tenants. This is a sector-wide initiative from the NHF focused on strengthening the relationship between residents and housing associations.

More resources at the Housing Ombudsman

Removing barriers to accessing the Ombudsman will result in more cases for us to investigate, and we have already experienced an unprecedented surge in casework over the last two years.

This had led us to increase our resources and streamline processes with expected higher volumes of cases in the future as residents become more aware of their rights, alongside a volatile economic climate, putting additional pressures on our services.

Driving better service improvement

Housing associations have experienced increased pressures on their services and it’s critical that complaints teams are well resourced but also treated with respect. This means all service areas being responsive to help resolve complaints, which should be the responsibility of a whole organisation.

This includes senior leaders using insights and learning arising from complaints to drive service improvement. These are essential ingredients needed to create a positive complaint handling culture and help build stronger relationships between residents and social landlords.