The Housing Ombudsman has released its special investigation into Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), in the wake of Awaab Ishak’s death, finding that a culture of ‘othering’ of residents lies at the heart of the issues at the landlord, involving a pattern of exclusion and marginalisation based on identities perceived as different.

The Ombudsman’s wider investigation was prompted by the inquest into Awaab’s death from prolonged exposure to mould and its review of RBH’s complaints brought to the Ombudsman.

The report examines the initial lessons identified by the landlord following Awaab’s death, and actions since the inquest, and makes more than 20 recommendations for improved practice to support RBH’s recovery in areas including disrepair, resident engagement and organisational learning.

The Ombudsman reviewed complaints determined in the previous four financial years to the start of 2023. The Ombudsman also made 15 findings in several cases investigated since the inquest and found maladministration for 10 of them – a maladministration rate of 67%, including three findings of severe maladministration.

This includes a resident reporting concern after her young son developed chest problems which she believes is because of severe damp and mould in her home.

The landlord has proactively engaged with the Ombudsman during the investigation, including meeting with the Ombudsman to discuss the themes identified and actions being undertaken.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “Our investigation has highlighted that culture change will be central to the landlord’s recovery.

“The weakness in policies, repeated failures, and failure to learn from complaints has led us to conclude there was wider service failure by the landlord in areas other than its response to damp and mould, including record keeping and communication.

“Our investigation found reoccurring instances of residents being treated in dismissive, inappropriate or unsympathetic ways. In some instances, the language used was derogatory.

“It is highly unlikely that this endemic behaviour of ‘othering’ is isolated to a single landlord and the social housing sector should consider whether they also need to turn over the stone and do a deep dive into their culture and whether they are living their social purpose.

“It is encouraging to see that the new leadership at the landlord is determined to lead from the front with the development of their recovery plan.”

The Ombudsman identified seven key themes and set out a series of recommendations.

Finding its silence

The Ombudsman found that the landlord did not go far enough to find where residents were not reporting damp and mould issues. This included flawed reviews that did not uncover the damp and mould that was present on various estates. This further highlights the risk for other landlords of relying on one method and one-off exercises to identify the extent of problems – finding the silence is not easy and requires a range of methods, using skilled professionals, to be effective.

The landlord has since written personalised letters to residents encouraging reporting of damp and mould, provided updates on planned property works and resident engagement events. It has also started a stock condition survey.

The Ombudsman’s recommendations include formal hazards assessments being introduced for damp and mould inspections. Action should also be taken when reletting homes and consideration taken of when residents should be moved to another property.

Treat residents fairly

As part of the investigation, the Ombudsman looked at the responses the landlord gave to the call for evidence as part of the spotlight report shortly after the death of Awaab Ishak. Much of the language used was tenant blaming, using lifestyle and cultural barriers as key reasons for the issues.

The Ombudsman’s investigations found that the dismissive and discriminatory attitude towards residents was not restricted to Awaab Ishak’s family, nor complaints about damp and mould – with issues arising in cases involving general repairs, the ending of tenancies and anti-social behaviour.

This strongly indicates that ‘unsympathetic, inappropriate, or even heavy-handed behaviour’ towards residents is present throughout the landlord’s interactions. While all staff were provided with ‘Respect’ training at induction there is no evidence this is repeated.

The Ombudsman stated that this is a significant concern and requires a comprehensive and sustained focus on shifting behaviour and culture, going on to say that it is imperative the new leadership oversees a programme of education and training on staff engagement with residents and other landlords should consider what action they should take to improve professionalism.

Proactive communication strategy

The Ombudsman found that communications by the landlord about damp and mould are at times scant. Website information does not cover how the landlord will tackle the issue, instead addressing what the resident should do.

The landlord intends to produce more information for residents, including a video, that will be left with a resident following mould treatment and in the tenancy sign-up pack.

The Ombudsman recommends the landlord further engage residents from across its diverse population in the co-design of new information to ensure it is accessible, impactful and effective.

Record keeping

According to the Ombudsman, this is a key theme running through Rochdale Boroughwide Housing’s complaints, including missing repairs records, different systems holding different information, repairs information logged against the wrong address and key details being stored on individual staff computers.

The Ombudsman also found that the landlord lost most of its email data in 2020 and there was evidence of a lack of synchronisation between multiple databases.

The landlord is now taking steps to encourage a culture shift to updating live documents in the databases, including reviewing the permissions to ensure document integrity, and the Ombudsman proposes the landlord prioritises a tenancy audit to establish who is living in the homes, vulnerabilities and the presence of children.

Damp and mould strategy

The landlord aims to have a dedicated damp and mould strategy in place by April 2023, in line with the recommendation of the Ombudsman’s Spotlight report and is deploying technology to monitor humidity in their homes.

The landlord has introduced a priority system for assessing how long a mould repair could take but the Ombudsman feels it did not sufficiently recognise the severity of the mould or whether the location is critical, only how relatively widespread it is.

While the landlord created a damp and mould taskforce last year, the Ombudsman has concerns about its training, which seems to concentrate on the technical requirements on a landlord and whether it needs to concede liability when a disrepair claim has been submitted.

Empower staff

The investigation found that the landlord’s staff did not have the sufficient training to explore reports of damp and mould, make the right decisions on how to handle damp and mould reports nor the empowerment to challenge appropriately if they felt the response inadequate.

The landlord intends to set up training programmes centred around diagnostic and problem-solving skills. It is to review its contact centre capacity, staffing and skill sets as well as the scope and delivery of the out-of-hours service.

It also found that it is also clear some staff did not feel comfortable raising their issues through the whistleblowing process in place within the landlord, opting instead to talk directly to the Housing Ombudsman.

The landlord intends to regularly communicate its whistleblowing policy to encourage a culture of ‘calling out’ and is also providing specific Equality and Diversity training that includes confidence building to empower staff to challenge when they feel policies or procedures and a process-driven culture has overtaken doing what is right.

Organisational learning

Until the inquest, the Ombudsman found that the landlord did not show a strong ability to learn from its mistakes or take opportunities to improve from them.

There were several issues with the landlord’s complaints policy from 2022, which did not include an emphasis around equality – which is particularly concerning as many of the issues the Ombudsman identified in its investigation concern the fair treatment of residents, particularly those with protected characteristics.

The Ombudsman has recommended the landlord update its complaints policy and self-assess against the Code.

In a learning statement, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing said: “We would like to thank the Ombudsman service for its very thorough and balanced report. The findings in the report are sobering but not unexpected. There has been significant learning from the tragic death of Awaab Ishak, which highlighted key areas of concern within RBH.

“We have recognised that too often damp and mould was not seen as a serious issue and was attributed to a resident’s lifestyle.

“At RBH we have taken significant steps since December 2022 to tackle this across our homes. But it is fair to say that this work should have started much sooner and that the scale of the issue in our homes means it will take us time to complete.

“The report also highlights concerns with the way in which residents were treated.  Our residents have the right to be treated with respect and listened to and too often this wasn’t happening. We will put this right and have begun a culture shift programme across the organisation.

“There are wider lessons that we need to act upon, around the investment in our existing homes, and how this is balanced against the desperate need for more homes.

“Issues of overcrowding in homes have a detrimental effect in a lot of areas and is a significant issue within Rochdale but also across the country, with insufficient family homes to move people into. However, this should not excuse us from trying to find solutions, investigating the root cause of the damp and mould and taking action to treat it.”