A landlord under a long lease will almost certainly be obliged to maintain and repair the structure of the building. Whilst roof leaks can be difficult to diagnose, a landlord will always face difficulty if it takes years for repairs to be undertaken and fails to adequately address the resident’s complaints in the meantime.
Ms P was a leaseholder living in a first floor flat. The London Borough of Ealing were the landlord and freeholder of the building. The flat was suffering from water penetration due to defects in the roof.
The council had identified in 2015 that the roof needed to be replaced and said that this would be included in its next planned programme of works but would complete temporary works to address the leak in the meantime.
The council had confirmed that the roof would be replaced within two years but by January 2022 the works had still not taken place. Ms P said that she had complained about these issues on multiple occasions, that her health had been impacted and she also questioned the management fees she paid to the landlord for a building she was unable to use.
It was not disputed that the landlord is responsible, under the terms of the lease, to repair and maintain the roof of the building and that Ms P is required to reimburse the landlord for costs reasonably incurred by the landlord in carrying out these responsibilities. It is also not disputed that the landlord identified back in 2015 that the roof required replacement as it was causing damp within the property. Though roof replacement works are complex and will typically take an extended period of time to complete, it remains a requirement that a landlord complete such works within a reasonable timeframe. Having acknowledged damp within the property as far back as 2015, it was essential that the landlord acted in a timely manner so that Ms P benefitted from a property free from such a hazard.
The landlord’s response to Ms P’s complaint focused on its difficulties on carrying out the renewal/replacement works to the roof, referring to procurement issues and then COVID-19 related issues. Although the Ombudsman appreciated that arranging major works contracts is a complex process for any landlord, with a requirement to survey and assess the property, tender to potential contractors, consult leaseholders and secure the contract itself. However, despite these difficulties, in the Ombudsman’s opinion, the delay in progressing the works to the building in this case was unacceptable.
It was of significant concern to the Ombudsman that the council chose to narrow the focus of the complaint in such a way that only the delay in the programme of works was responded to. This meant that the council missed the opportunity to address Ms P’s points of dissatisfaction and resulted in a deterioration in the landlord/resident relationship. The Ombudsman recorded in its decision that taking time to discuss and understand a complaint is an essential aspect of a landlord’s complaints handling process as doing so renders it more likely that a case will be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all involved. The council had also been reluctant to escalate the complaint, referring to the narrow focus of its complaint definition in stating she would need to wait for the programme of works to complete and that escalation to a senior level would be unlikely to offer a different viewpoint. Taking this approach effectively amounted to the landlord fettering its discretion as it presupposed the outcome of a further review of the case. Ms P, even with the Ombudsman’s assistance, encountered significant difficulty in progressing her complaint and did not receive a stage three (final) response at any point.
The Ombudsman found severe maladministration for the landlord’s complaint handling and maladministration for its response to the resident’s reports about water coming into her flat and the repairs carried out. It ordered the landlord to pay the resident compensation of £3,600 for the unreasonable delay in completing major works to the building, for the standard of temporary works to resolve the issues and for its complaint handling.
It should not take anyone by surprise that taking six years to fix a leaking roof is always likely to be criticised. Further, failing to respond to a customer’s complaints and even refusing to escalate a complaints process is only likely to lead to one result. Whilst Covid-19 has caused delays in repairs being undertaken, it cannot be used as a catch all excuse for delays occurring many years before the pandemic even started. There is useful guidance in the Ombudsman’s findings on the correct (or in this case the incorrect) way to run a complaint handling process. An important aspect of that process is taking time to discuss and understand a complaint, and responding to complaints in a timely manner, as only then will a successful outcome/resolution be likely.
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The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at March 2022.