Housing Watchdog Slams Hammersmith & Fulham Council

Ombudsman report describes systematic failure in its provision

Clem Attlee Court in Fulham
Clem Attlee Court in Fulham. Picture: Glyn Baker

February 20, 2024

The Housing Ombudsman has published a damning report into Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s approach to repairs and handling complaints, finding the service hampered by delays, poor handiwork and failing to learn from former mistakes. Ombudsman Richard Blakeway’s investigation began in May 2023, over concerns of ‘systemic failure’ at the authority.

The Ombudsman’s investigation assessed findings in cases determined between 29 May 2023 and 29 September 22023, with the aim of discovering whether the issues were systemic rather than confined to specific instances. During that period, determinations were issued on 33 cases involving complaints raised between March 2020 and January 2023. Of those, the Ombudsman recorded a total of 72 maladministration findings, at a maladministration rate of 88%.

While a number of issues were discovered, such as the council’s management of contractors to dealing with vulnerable residents, the Ombudsman identified two key themes which proved most pertinent; Hammersmith and Fulham’s approach to repairs, and the way it dealt with complaints. These included delays to repairs being completed, poor quality of work, and a failure to learn from past cases.

In one instance, a contractor cancelled a job to repair a collapsed ceiling without rearranging. The council told the resident it would monitor the repairs, but the Ombudsman wrote he found no evidence of this. More appointments were cancelled, with poor record-keeping meaning Hammersmith and Fulham had to ask the resident for a progress update. It took two years for the ceiling to be repaired.

In another case, an elderly woman with health issues was suffering from ongoing problems with damp and mould. She raised a complaint with the council due to the issues not being resolved, before a series of further delays pushed the repairs further and further back. After two years these were finally complete, with it taking 16 months to progress the residents’ complaint through the council’s internal process. She was eventually paid £3,300 in compensation.

Mr Blakeway however does praise the council’s ‘positive approach to learning from this investigation’, with a range of improvements having already been implemented.

A statement from Hammersmith and Fulham Council included in the Ombudsman’s report said it is ‘truly sorry’ and reiterated its ‘deepest regrets to those residents affected’. “We have apologised, compensated, and worked hard to rectify where we let people down,” the statement continued.

One resident told the Ombudsman she ‘cried most of the day’ due to a saga in which repairs to fix a leak were delayed by 26 months, with workers coming to her home on numerous occasions unable to resolve the issue.

The report reads, “Following the contractors visit to complete the works, Miss O reported back to the landlord that a contractor had attended to disconnect a light, which she had not been informed was needed, and then left. A further operative arrived who did not know what they were doing, looked at the living room and commented it was a big job that required two people. After going to their van to make a call, the operative told the resident that the ceiling needed to be checked before the repairs could be completed, and that the job would be cancelled. Miss O told the landlord she ‘cried most of the day’ as she was ‘so drained’ and ‘sick and tired of this’. Miss O said she no longer believed anything the landlord said as it had repeatedly broken its promises, and felt she was being bullied because she was a single woman living alone. The required repairs were eventually completed five months later.”

Following the publication of the report, Cllr Victoria Brocklebank-Fowler, Leader of the Conservative Opposition, said: “It is thanks to the Ombudsman becoming involved in LBHF, that the council has been forced to deal with our tenants feeling unsafe in their homes due to failures of repairs and appalling mismanagement. Residents have suffered and the council has been rightly blamed by the ombudsman. This council claims to be compassionate when it is clear they’re not.”

Included in the Ombudsman’s report is a list of recommendations for the council to improve its service. These range from creating a clear process within the repairs policy detailing how repair appointments will be managed, to creating a process to effectively monitor compensation payments.

Mr Blakeway said the council’s leadership should be commended for the ‘proactive and positive approach’ it has taken to the investigation’s findings.

He said it appeared to be operating in ‘crisis management’ for a number of years, typified by the way it dealt with the fallout of a contractor it sacked in 2021 due to unacceptable service failures.

The human impact, Mr Blakeway continued, was evident throughout the report.

“In some cases, those failures led to residents feeling anything but secure in their homes and on the streets – windows that could not be closed to make properties secure, part of a window frame falling out of a property into a garden below, ceiling debris falling onto the head of a young child, and residents complaining of feeling unsafe in their buildings.

“Our investigation reveals how many residents said that they felt the ongoing issues were having a detrimental impact on their mental wellbeing; others advised their physical health was declining as a result of the disrepair, and for others, there was also fear of being injured as a result of the ongoing repairs.

“There were also financial implications as residents had to spend additional money to keep their properties heated during the winter months, with some residents choosing to pay for their own independent inspections in order to progress the repairs.”

Mr Blakeway added it is ‘encouraging’ to see some of the changes already made by the council, and that it is essential landlords make learning from complaints routine and adequately resource complaint handling.

In a statement responding to the report, Hammersmith and Fulham Council apologised those impacted by the issues raised. “We are truly sorry and reiterate our deepest regrets to those residents affected,” it reads. “We have apologised, compensated, and worked hard to rectify where we let people down.”

The council also pointed to steps it has taken to improve its housing service, such as additional investment in repairs, meaning around 50,000 jobs are now completed a year, as well as initiatives such as its Housing Hub, which has developed the way it deals with complaints.

“Over the last nine months we have reduced the number of outstanding repairs by nearly 30%,” it notes. “There has been a 90% reduction in repairs outstanding for more than 12 weeks.”

Other actions include establishing a Chief Executive-led taskforce aimed at tackling the issues with complaints and repairs, and delivering a £729m programme to modernise its housing stock.

“While we have improved, our journey of change still has far to go,” it adds. “We will continue to listen to residents, including our dedicated housing representative forums that guide our long-term plans. We will report progress to council scrutiny committees, ensure compliance with national legislation, and seek best practice from external bodies, as we strengthen our services to meet residents’ needs.

“We aim to fundamentally transform our housing service to provide homes for all residents of which they and we can be proud.”

Ben Lynch - Local Democracy Reporter