Black marks for council’s housing teams as Ombudsman highlights multiple failings

By Ben Lynch, Local Democracy Reporter

The Housing Ombudsman has published a damning report into Hammersmith and Fulham council’s approach to repairs and complaints, finding the service is hampered by delays, poor handiwork and a failure to learn from former mistakes.

Ombudsman Richard Blakeway’s investigation began in May 2023, over concerns of ‘systemic failure’ at the west London authority.

Mr Blakeway however does praise the council’s ‘positive approach to learning from this investigation’, with a range of improvements having already been implemented.

A statement from Hammersmith and Fulham council included in the Ombudsman’s report said it was ‘truly sorry’ and reiterated its ‘deepest regrets to those residents affected’.

The Ombudsman’s investigation assessed findings in cases determined between May 29 and September 29 last year, with the aim of discovering whether the issues were systemic rather than confined to specific instances.

During that period, determinations were issued on 33 cases involving complaints raised between March 2020 and January 2023. Of those, the Ombudsman recorded a total of 72 maladministration findings, with 88 per cent of investigations finding fault.

While a number of issues were discovered, such as the council’s management of contractors dealing with vulnerable residents, the Ombudsman identified two key themes: Hammersmith and Fulham’s approach to repairs, and the way it dealt with complaints. These included delays to repairs being completed, poor quality of work and a failure to learn from past cases.

In one instance, a contractor cancelled a job to repair a collapsed ceiling without rearranging. The council told the resident it would monitor the repairs, but the Ombudsman wrote he found no evidence of this. More appointments were cancelled, with poor record-keeping meaning it took two years for the ceiling to be repaired.

In another case, an elderly woman with health issues was suffering from damp and mould in her home. She raised a complaint due to the issues not being resolved, before a series of further delays pushed the repairs further and further back.

After two years, these were finally complete, with it taking 16 months to progress the residents’ complaint through the council’s internal process. She was eventually paid £3,300 in compensation.

Another resident told the Ombudsman she ‘cried most of the day’ due to a saga in which repairs to fix a leak were delayed by 26 months, with workers coming to her home on numerous occasions unable to resolve the issue.

Following the publication of the report, Cllr Victoria Brocklebank-Fowler, leader of the Conservative opposition, said: “It is thanks to the Ombudsman that the council has been forced to deal with our tenants feeling unsafe in their homes due to failures of repairs and appalling mismanagement.

“Residents have suffered and the council has been rightly blamed by the ombudsman. This council claims to be compassionate when it is clear they’re not.”

Included in the Ombudsman’s report are a list of recommendations for the council to improve its service. These range from creating a clear process within the repairs policy detailing how repair appointments will be managed, to creating a process to effectively monitor compensation payments.

He said it appeared to be operating in ‘crisis management’ for a number of years, typified by the way it dealt with the fallout of a contractor it sacked in 2021 due to unacceptable service failures.

Mr Blakeway said: “In some cases, those failures led to residents feeling anything but secure in their homes and on the streets – windows that could not be closed to make properties secure, part of a window frame falling out of a property into a garden below, ceiling debris falling onto the head of a young child.

“Our investigation reveals how many residents said that they felt the ongoing issues were having a detrimental impact on their mental wellbeing. Others advised their physical health was declining as a result of the disrepair.

“There were also financial implications as residents had to spend additional money to keep their properties heated during the winter months, with some residents choosing to pay for their own independent inspections in order to progress the repairs.”

In a statement responding to the report, the local authority said: “We are truly sorry and reiterate our deepest regrets to those residents affected. We have apologised, compensated, and worked hard to rectify where we let people down.

“Over the last nine months we have reduced the number of outstanding repairs by nearly 30 per cent. There has been a 90 per cent reduction in repairs outstanding for more than 12 weeks.

“While we have improved, our journey of change still has far to go. We will continue to listen to residents, and ensure compliance with national legislation.

“We aim to fundamentally transform our housing service to provide homes for all residents of which they and we can be proud.”

Picture: takbudetO/Pixabay

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