Social landlords challenged to ‘up their game’ and take a proactive approach to resolving damp and mould problems within their housing stock

The Housing Ombudsman is calling on all housing landlords to take a completely fresh, zero tolerance approach to resolving the twin problems of damp and mould that blight the lives of so many tenants across the country.

After undertaking a major thematic study to investigate the causes behind so many complaints about damp and mould from social housing tenants, the Ombudsman concluded that many landlords over rely on residents to report and monitor problems, while at the same time they accept or tolerate working cultures within their organisations which fail to take decisive responsibility for ensuring problems are dealt with and complaints are resolved.

Recognising that damp and mould feature disproprtionately in the complaints received, the Ombudsman was prompted to undertake a special investigation, part of which featured a sector wide
call for evidence between April and June this year.

They received reports on 523 cases of damp and mould, 464 from member landlords and the remainder from the private sector.

Following analysis of the cases, the Ombudsman has produced a hard hitting report which uses a series of case studies and has made 26 recommendations for action, mostly directed towards senior management.

This ‘Spotlight’ report, challenges the sector to make meaningful changes to how it manages its stock, how it deals with complaints and how it communicates with its customers.

Coincidentally (or not) damp and mould also featured in many of the poor property conditions investigated by ITN earlier in the year, which often saw tenants health and mental wellbeing damaged by problems which persisted for years, often with tenants’ lifestyles being blamed for causing condensation.

The Ombudsman found that while condensation was often a cause of damp and mould in properties, there were often more important factors, in particular: lack of ventilation; water leaks; and
structural faults.

It has promised to follow up on this report next year, so all social landlords should read and digest the contents of the report and look to implement changes and learning based on its contents and recommendations. Any that do not and continue to be the basis of tenants complaints can surely expect harsh treament from the Ombudsman in future.

The Ombudsman recognises the report covers a lot of issues and landlords will need time to consider their response. But he warns “We will be monitoring landlord performance in this
area and will actively consider where further systemic investigations may be required in the future to address service improvements with individual landlords.

“We will also consider whether we need to do further work in relation to possible contributory factors to damp and mould such as roof leaks, retrofitting or the managed decline of stock.”

A review of the Ombudsman’s casebook indicates that complaints in relation to damp and mould problems share many of the following characteristics:

  • They are often complex
  • Issues may be long running
  • Poor communications
  • Lack of clarity about repairs and timescales
  • Lack of confidence by residents in the
    initial diagnosis
  • High level of distress and disruption for
    the resident
  • Health and wellbeing are frequently cited and
  • Problems are not fixed and reoccur.

It now wants more landlords to take a pro-active approach to dealing with these issues, with a shared and common understanding fostered among staff that reduces the risk of silo working.

Richard Blakeway said: “Where we have found maladministration, it is often because the landlord missed opportunities to identify and address problems earlier in an individual case. This lesson
can be applied across all the homes for which the landlord has responsibility.

While its investigations did not find causation in terms of health conditions, the Ombudsman accepts that residents living in homes with damp and mould may be more likely to have respiratory
problems, allergies, asthma and other conditions that affect their immune systems.

“This, set against the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlights the potential seriousness of this issue for residents,” the report states. The Ombudsman found the failure rate for landlords
was often down to inaction, excessive delays or poor communication. In one case study, a tenant had to wait five years to have their complaint about damp resolved.

Along with casework, the Ombudsman heard from tenants, who said they were frustrated, felt like they were not being heard, and that their landlords were not taking their repair reports or
complaints seriously.

Though the report recognises the challenges facing landlords, including overcrowding, poverty, the age and design of homes, it says they should avoid inferring residents are to blame due to
“lifestyle”, “when it is often not solely their issue, and take responsibility for resolving problems”.

Richard Blakeway said it is “clear that a strategic response to damp and mould is required, particularly in the context of decarbonisation”. The report concludes by encouraging senior leaders and
governing bodies to ask the following points:

  • Do we have a proactive, zero-tolerance approach to damp and mould and a comprehensive, consolidated policy or framework for responding to these cases? Are we considering damp and
    mould as part of our net zero strategy?
  • How effective and timely are we at responding to and resolving reports and complaints concerning damp and mould? How do we know we are providing meaningful information and support to our residents?
  • How do we identify and manage complex cases, complex situations and/or those involving legal disrepair claims? Are we promoting our complaints processes enough and does our approach allow the complaints process to continue alongside pre-action claims?
  • What is our organisational culture with respect to learning? Are we making the most of our complaint data and case studies to learn and improve?