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PlaceShapers Annual Conference | The evolving role of the Housing Ombudsman

The evolving role of the Housing Ombudsman - chaired by Carol Carter, CEO of Origin Housing
Tuesday 23rd November, 2021

Our guest speakers for the second session of the day were Housing Ombudsman and previous Deputy Mayor of London for Housing, Richard Blakeway, and Coastline Housing resident and Vice Chair of the TPAS Tenant Advisory Panel, Joe DeVille, who gave two very complementary presentations.

Richard began by outlining the role of the Housing Ombudsman service, highlighting that people often think it’s just about resolving complaints, but actually it extends far wider. One of its most important functions is extracting learning from complaints and ensuring that changes are made as a result.

Complaints are currently up 83% on the same period last year, which is in excess of what would be expected, even allowing for COVID. Common complaints include delays to repairs, ageing stock, poor communication and lack of empathy for individuals’ circumstances. However, Richard doesn’t think an increase in the volume of complaints is necessarily bad.  Customers clearly feel empowered to speak up, trusting that it will not affect their future relationship with their landlord, which can be viewed as a positive. He believes what is important is having a culture where issues are addressed quickly, accurate records are kept, and the tone of communication throughout the organisation is empathetic and consistent.

One thing that they have been keen to promote in the new Housing Ombudsman complaint handling code is the need for landlords to provide a two or three stage complaints process: so that there is ongoing engagement with customers and further consideration internally to make what’s wrong right, before escalating the complaint. He also believes that the introduction of consumer standards is a positive change in helping residents to hold landlords to account more effectively.

Joe DeVille then gave a heartfelt residents’ perspective. His big ask was for housing associations to be more empathetic to customers. For staff to genuinely ask themselves “Would you like to live here? If not, how can I change it?” “How can I make this person’s life better?” Landlords need to really listen to their customers, and he feels that his landlord, Coastline, do this well.

He was keen that the sector tries to tackle the stigma and prejudice around social housing and the assumption that people’s lifestyles are to blame. We are all humans at the end of the day, no matter what our background. We should all work together and treat everyone the same, irrespective of where they live. Joe also stressed that vulnerability was not just about obvious disabilities. There has been an increase in people struggling with their mental as well as physical health post Covid and these vulnerable people need to be looked after properly.

There were then a number of questions from the audience. These included what the two panellists thought of the increasing professionalisation of boards. Both agreed that increasing diversity and encouraging different perspectives was a good thing and that having residents be part of housing associations’ management structure was vital.

In terms of takeaways, although speaking from different perspectives, the two speakers wholeheartedly agreed that partnership between residents and providers was the best way to find solutions, and that dealing with issues quickly, showing genuine empathy and learning lessons from mistakes are at the heart of an effective complaints handling process.