Waltham Forest housing failings reach highest recorded level

The number of ‘severe’ housing failings by Waltham Forest Council has hit a record high.

In 2023/24, the government’s Housing Ombudsman service recorded five instances of severe maladministration in how the authority had handled complaints.

Severe maladministration – the highest tier – is defined by the ombudsman as a landlord failing to act or doing something they should not.

Waltham Forest has accepted its failings and implemented new strategies and internal training programmes, officers said in a housing scrutiny report.

As a social landlord, Waltham Forest is responsible for ensuring the structure of a council-owned property is kept in good condition, and complaints typically through the authority first.

On top of the five ‘severe’ failures, there were 24 instances of maladministration and 13 service failures. In 2022/23 and 2020/21, there had been zero findings of maladministration, with just two in 2021/22.

However, in six of the 18 cases investigated by the Housing Ombudsman, no issues were found.

The Ombudsman identified several trends of repeated failure: the council often failed to investigate complaints properly, consider residents’ vulnerabilities, and follow its own procedures. Its record keeping was also “poor” and there were noticeable delays in investigations or responses.

Councils can also be investigated by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO), which considers wider housing issues.

It received ten complaints about Waltham Forest in 2023/24 and upheld five. Though the 50% rate was the highest of the past four years, the LGSCO also received the fewest complaints.

The year before, it had received 19 complaints and upheld seven, at a rate of 37%. A further 20 complaints had been lodged in 2021/22, but only six were upheld.

The authority’s shortcomings can be costly: three findings of severe maladministration in  February saw the council being made to pay out more than £18,800 in compensation to affected residents.

One resident had been subjected to anti-social behaviour in her home for more than five years, with the council repeatedly referring her to the Metropolitan Police after “failing to identify the risks” she faced and “take ownership” of the case.

Having suffered a “significant decline” in her mental health, she was awarded £11,300 in compensation and received a letter of apology from the chief executive, Linzi Roberts-Egan.

The three cases attracted further criticism from secretary of state for housing Michael Gove, who said the council’s services had fallen “well below the standard residents should expect”.

In its learning statement, Waltham Forest said it “fully accepted” the Housing Ombudsman’s findings and apologised “unreservedly” for its failings. 

The statement continued: “A significant service transformation programme has been underway for the past year. The learnings from these cases have been used to make sure we are listening to our residents’ voices and have informed the improvement to services that we have made.”

Richard Blakeway, housing ombudsman, said: “I recognise the challenges the housing crisis and resources are presenting to landlords. However, this context cannot excuse some of the failings in these cases, which led to significant impact on residents who were, in different ways, vulnerable.

“Running throughout these cases were missed opportunities by the landlord to put things right for the resident and rebuild the relationship.”

The ombudsman also heard how the council took eleven months to visit a property badly affected by mould and damp, and another for any repairs to begin.

Ahsan Khan, cabinet member for housing and regeneration, previously apologised for “the poor service” they received.

Between June 2022 and September 2023, the council identified 846 cases of damp and mould  across the borough.

The vast majority – 605 – were ‘slight risk’ cases, with ‘minor’ levels of damp or mould contained to one room.

There had been ten ‘severe’ cases – where ‘excessive’ damp and mould levels can be found in multiple rooms – as well as 231 ‘moderate’ cases, where any level of damp or mould has spread to more than one room.

In a report, officers said severe cases were being dealt within the mandatory 48-hour deadline but there were cases where remedial works exceeded the target deadline date.

They noted that these targets would be “more stringent and challenging” with the introduction of ‘Awaab’s Law’ later this year.

Two-year-old Awaab Ishak died in 2020 after developing respiratory issues due to black mould in his Rochdale home. His father had complained to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing in 2017 and had been told to paint over it.

The new law will force social housing landlords to begin investigating known or reported hazards within 14 days, and to commence repair work within seven days if the hazard poses a significant risk to the health or safety of the tenants.

Waltham Forest’s repairs contractor, City-based Morgan Sindall Property Services, is responsible for dealing with mould and damp in social housing.

There are a total of 82 outstanding damp and mould cases, according to recent council figures. 23 of those are overdue beyond the 14-day deadline, with the contractor pointing to the complexity of the works and supply chain capacity.

Waltham Forest Council has since launched a dedicated damp and mould ‘task force,’ which will monitor its performance and analyse data to identify at-risk homes.

The Housing Ombudsman is currently working through a backlog of 14 complaints lodged against the council.

They cover a range of issues, including water damage, planned maintenance and antisocial behaviour.

The council has said its Housing Services team is working to address the problems before the Ombudsman publishes its findings.

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Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter