September marked the start of the Housing Ombudsman's new powers. What effect will this have on registered providers? Digby Morgan reports.
Readers will no doubt be familiar with the general system of regulation of the affordable housing world. Various bodies oversee various aspects. Primus inter pares is the Regulator of Social Housing. This is concerned largely with the way RPs are run: issues like governance, financial viability, and resident involvement. The Regulator sets standards and has various statutory powers to make sure RPs meet them. Although it exists to protect tenants, its remit is wider, and it is necessarily more focussed on organisational and operational matters at a corporate level.
In tandem with this is the Housing Ombudsman. All social landlords must be members of the Ombudsman's scheme, and it's open to any occupier, whether tenant, leaseholder or otherwise, to complain of maladministration.
It is more consumer-focussed, although, like me, you may not be entirely comfortable with the use of the word "consumer" in the context of something as fundamental as people's homes. Nonetheless, it's a good descriptor for what it does. Residents who feel their landlord has not adequately addressed their complaint can go to the Ombudsman, which can investigate, and seek resolution informally or formally. It is much more focussed on individual cases than the Regulator.
The system has worked pretty well, but there is potential for issues to fall between the gaps. For example, a tenant's complaint to the Ombudsman about a specific repair and maintenance issue may be a symptom of a more serious underlying problem of wider concern. If a landlord is struggling to fix a leak, perhaps there is a wider issue with responsive repairs. Where leaks are going unfixed, perhaps gas certificates are not being done on time. Patterns may become clear to the Ombudsman that the Regulator ought to know about, but would previously have struggled to pick up on.
Enter the revised Housing Ombudsman Scheme, which aims to solve this. What has changed?
There is a new complaint handling code, which sets out how landlords must treat complaints. This provides a universal definition of "complaint", and sets out the processes and timescales landlords should meet. Landlords must now self-assess against this annually.
From 1 January 2021, the Ombudsman can issue 'Complaint Handling Failure Orders'. These can relate to a specific complaint, or to more systematic problems in dealing with them. If the latter, there is a new power to undertake broader investigations, and, crucially, there is a broader power to refer to the Regulator. The Ombudsman will notify the Regulator of findings of serious maladministration where there is potential breach of a regulatory standard or a complaint handling failure order.
So plenty for governance teams to consider. Is this where regulatory reform ends? By no means. The long-awaited Social Housing White Paper will have a regulatory focus, and is expected this autumn. We're in the midst of post-Grenfell building safety reform. No doubt there is more to come!