Council vows to improve complaints handling after serious housing failures in Waltham Forest

Waltham Forest Council has vowed to improve after a string of serious failures were made by its housing service.

The authority has been subjected to several investigations by the Housing Ombudsman, which handles complaints about the council’s role as a social landlord, over disputes between its tenants.

In 2022/23, a total of 24 instances of maladministration were found in 19 cases lodged against Waltham Forest – up from zero instances across nine cases the year before.

In some instances, the council has been forced to pay thousands of pounds in compensation.

With more rulings expected soon, the council will look to “completely overhaul” its complaints handling process and improve staff training, according to a report approved by the cabinet this week.

The process for handling complaints, enquiries, and Freedom of Information requests was redesigned in February to resolve the “pain points” and improve residents’ experiences, the report says. The council was also on-track to implement a new system for handling requests by the end of April, having identified iCasework as the best option.

One of the central issues identified by the Ombudsman was officers “taking too long” to respond to complaints, as well as complaints being treated as “service requests” rather than formal issues, as well as failures to follow the council’s own relevant policy.

The council hopes to “refine” its definitions and ensure council officers understand them, to prevent further mishandlings.

During the cabinet meeting, Grace Willliams, leader of Waltham Forest Council, said the judgments had been “very clear about where the weaknesses are”.

Deputy leader Ahsan Khan added that while “a few more” judgments were expected over the coming months, the cases had so far all been resolved.

The report described many landlords seeing a “significant increase” in determinations as the Ombudsman “acted robustly in publishing its findings and “exposing landlords to heightened resident, peer, and public scrutiny”.

Secretary of state for housing Michael Gove wrote a scathing letter to council chief executive Linzi Roberts-Egan in March, criticising its “unacceptable” failings after it paid £18,800 to tenants over three instances of “severe maladministration”.

He said he would be taking a “personal interest” in the Labour-run council improving its services, which fell “well below” the standards residents should expect.

In one case, a vulnerable resident had to wait eleven months for the council to arrange an inspection of their mould-infested home, while another was forced to put-up with antisocial behaviour outside her home for five years.

She had been forced to sofa surf and stay in temporary accommodation over genuine fears for her own safety.

In February, the council was ordered to pay her £11,300 in compensation for failing to provide an adequate risk assessment or action plan and for referring her to the police instead of taking responsibility.

The resident facing issues with mould was offered £2,737 in compensation, while the council was ordered to send a senior member to apologise and for refresher training for all staff on complaints to be carried out.

In its learning statement, the council said it “fully accepts” the Housing Ombudsman’s findings and apologised “unreservedly to the residents who were affected” by the three documented failings.

Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter