HQN Blog: The Social Housing Green Paper – The democratic filter

In the latest HQN blog, Cllr Paul Smith of Bristol City Council and advisor to the Housing Ombudsman writes on the importance of ensuring the complaints process for tenants is strengthened following the Social Housing Green Paper

As a councillor my responses to government housing consultations invariably call for more powers to be delegated to the local level. I was overjoyed to hear that the arbitrary cap of council house borrowing is being removed. There are many other decisions which I believe would be better made by local councils. The so-called ‘democratic filter’ however is something which I consider should be removed: It is more of a ‘democratic barrier’.

Currently tenants wishing to complain about a landlord to the Housing Ombudsman after exhausting the landlords’ own processes must either submit the complaint via a ‘designated person’ – a councillor, MP or recognised tenants’ group. If these can’t or won’t help the tenant has to wait eight weeks before being able to approach the ombudsman. This was controversial when the Localism Act was being debated. The argument was that it would keep local politicians engaged in housing, especially where councils no longer managed and owned housing themselves. It was also thought that the filter would allow local politicians and groups to deal with the cross-cutting nature of complaints which, although rooted in housing, may be also affected by other public bodies. There was also a hope that the filter would reduce the number of complaints to the ombudsman as more would be settled locally and that vexatious complaints would be deterred or blocked. The government did compromise, originally all complaints would go have to through the filter, and the eight week direct complaint was introduced.

The Social Housing Green paper says of the democratic filter “...our engagement revealed that the process does not appear to work for residents. There is a perception that the process of seeking redress takes too long.” It also quotes research conducted by the Housing Ombudsman Service “…found that although some local “designated person” arrangements work well, in many cases they do not and that there are designated persons who did not fully understand their role.” The Green Paper asked if the period for direct complaint should be reduced to four weeks or scrapped altogether. My view is that it should be completely scrapped for the following reasons:

  • Many councillors have no idea that the role exists
  • The demand to exhaust the landlords’ own complaints service is an effective filter
  • Residents should not have artificial barriers to them accessing a solution to their problems
  • The delay this creates is unnecessary and in some cases distressing
  • There is no evidence that the filter ensures more effective local resolution of complaints.

The Ombudsman also shares this view and their own research shows that only 7% of cases come through the filter with all the others stuck in limbo for eight additional weeks.

Yes I do want more housing powers both financial and legislative to be devolved to local councils, this is one which I’m quite happily to surrender.

Cllr Paul Smith is Cabinet Member for Housing Bristol City Council and member of the Housing Ombudsman Panel of Advisors.