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Housing Ombudsman urges social landlords to adopt "zero tolerance approach" on damp and mould 

The Housing Ombudsman has called on social landlords to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to damp and mould, saying it needs to be a higher priority.

The call was made in a report, Spotlight on damp and mould - It’s not lifestyle, that examined 410 complaints investigated about 142 landlords over a two-year period.

The report found maladministration in 56% of the cases, rising to 64% for complaint handling alone. The services added that the failure rate was “often the result of inaction, excessive delays or poor communication”.

The Ombudsman service said that, during its investigation, it found a general sense of frustration among residents, saying they felt they were not being heard or that their landlords were not taking their repair reports or complaints seriously. “The impact on residents was clear, with distress and inconvenience reported together with concerns about health and well-being.”

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It said landlords should avoid inferring blame on residents due to ‘lifestyle’, “when it is often not solely their issue, and take responsibility for resolving problems”. 

The report identifies best practice and makes 26 recommendations for landlords to implement, including: 

  • greater use of intelligence and data to prevent issues 
  • adopting a consolidated policy for actions it may take based on diagnosis 
  • reviewing communications with residents to improve tone 
  • improve access to complaints to resolve issues, including alongside disrepair claims, and learn from them.

The Ombudsman has meanwhile:

  • proposed that landlords do not close their complaints procedure prematurely if a resident commences with the pre-action protocol as the Ombudsman does not consider the use of the protocol to constitute legal proceedings. “This will maximise the opportunities to resolve disputes potentially sooner through the complaints process and less adversarial way.”
  • revised its Guidance on jurisdiction to make it clear that landlords should continue to use the complaints procedure until legal proceedings have been issued to maximise the opportunities to resolve disputes outside of court.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “Throughout our investigation, the distress and disruption experienced by residents living with damp and mould was evident. These are conditions that no one working in social housing wants to see. Our high maladministration rate shows that a fairer approach is needed. A zero-tolerance approach does not mean zero cases but it requires changes in culture, behaviour and approach by landlords – from reactive to proactive and from inferring blame to taking responsibility.  

“Our report makes several practical recommendations to prevent and resolve issues earlier, whilst recognising the causes of damp and mould can be many and varied, based on the extensive evidence we examined. Overall, landlords would benefit from a comprehensive and consolidated policy which sets out clearly and transparently the actions they will take to address the issue. This is already an area where some landlords are acting successfully, but this approach is not universal."

Blakeway added that landlords also needed to ‘find their silences’ where complaints are not being raised when other indicators suggest there may be issues. "Crucially, this includes maximising the potential for the complaints procedure to resolve issues and learn, without losing empathy when engaging with residents who can be deeply distressed."

He added that the word ‘lifestyle’, when it may be a consequence of limited choices, "should be banished from the vernacular". 

The Ombudsman said it would follow up on the Spotlight report by monitoring landlord performance and considering whether further systemic investigations may be required in the future. 

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