Most people have only heard of the “Ombudsman” from the Peep Show – “a threatening man at the door with a stove pipe hat and a long hookey stick, where you have to sleep with one eye open”. As comical as this is to imagine an intimidating righteous figure breaking in to your house ready to wield power and set injustices right, the reality is a little different.
There are a few different types of “Ombudsmans” out there, but the one we’ve been looking into to support our local communities in Bristol is the Housing Ombudsman. Far from the image of a tall formidable man at the door, they are actually an independent and impartial public body whose vision is to improve the lives of residents and improve landlord services through the power of complaints.
Thanks to the community engagement in East Bristol from the Early Doors Outreach Workers, it became increasingly clear how essential the need for the Housing Ombudsman was, particularly in the Barton Hill area, where many community members live in 17 storey high tower blocks.
Listening to tenants explain their long term ongoing battle with leaking pipes; damp and mould impacting the health of their families; and the noise and vibrations of the Victorian plumping system disrupting sleep and inciting fear when the building shakes, one tenant told us~:
“We just want to be able to go to sleep and not fear that we’ll end up as part of the concrete”.
Speaking to others we learnt that many people living in these tower blocks were also experiencing severe overcrowding, sometimes parents with three or four children living in a 1 bedroom flat. Others experiencing targeted harassment and prevalent anti-social behaviour. No matter the issue, the outcome appeared to be the same. Multiple complaints, yet nothing improves. Frustrated with the lack of progress by their landlord, these pro-active residents have spoken to their MP’s and local Councillors, got Mayor Marvin Rees and Cllr Tom Renard involved, called upon community action group ACORN and staged a protest outside the Council. We worked together with co-production members to think about less obvious avenues for them to go down – the Housing Ombudsman.
It’s not widely advertised that social housing tenants have the right to do this. And this is where Early Doors came in to support. The two Community Outreach Workers, Pieter and Emma, put their heads together and came up with a plan. Building on the Early Doors values of being easy to reach and access, we held the workshops in a central space in Barton Hill, only a few minutes walk from the tenants’ tower blocks. In the run up to the sessions, we spent time in the local area, inviting conversations from people around their housing and explaining about the workshops. People we spoke to were friendly and welcomed being asked about their situation, saying they were fed up with endless complaining and keen to look at other tools.
We designed the workshops to have an informal and conversational approach, using group discussions as a way to give participants a basic understanding of what the Housing Ombudsman is and provide learning tools in what makes an effective complaint. This included a handy flow chart designed by Pieter that simply demonstrates the complaints process in all its stages and provided clear guidance for participants to follow. In order to inspire confidence in the Ombudsman process we also included an awareness of what the different types of outcomes could be, particularly based on previous findings in Bristol, some decisions ruling in favour of offering financial compensation, others, depending on the case, finding anything from “maladministration” to “service failure” to “redress and no maladministration”.
I’m sure you’re confused by this terminology already. Luckily the Ombudsman have a helpful section on their website to explain these terms, and we handed round a glossary to ensure everyone understood what was meant by it. This conversation around previous or possible findings also allowed participants to have a realistic grasp of what to expect, as well as an anticipated timeframe in which their complaint would be addressed.
One of the primary goals of Early Doors is for people and communities in Bristol to learn housing rights knowledge and skills, and be able to access trusted, good quality housing guidance, support and advice before crisis. Thereby supporting people to live in secure and safe homes within their communities. By listening to what residents in Barton Hill were telling us about the appalling conditions within their flats, we felt that running a Housing Ombudsman workshop fulfilled both goals of supporting individuals with this knowledge but also promoted and encouraged collective community learning and knowledge sharing. Many of the participants who attended said they would share their learning with their neighbours, especially those who didn’t speak English and were able to translate for them, and the flow chart tool we created that explained the process of the complaints system was handed out by participants to their neighbours due to the confidence they felt following the workshop. We also keenly emphasized to the group that the more tenants from Barton Hill to submit a complaint, the more likely the Ombudsman will see the increase and commonality of numerous and ongoing issues, and therefore the likelihood of them opening up a formal investigation, with the hopeful outcome of putting pressure on the Council and recommending improvements. Everyone seemed very happy with this suggestion!
Finally, what has been another great learning outcome for ourselves, is hearing from participants about the desperate need for more workshops like this, how to improve them and how to reach more people. This kind of feedback is invaluable because it means we’re hearing directly from those we’re supporting and how best to it! Whilst we thought we were being accessible by running the sessions in the area, we’ve heard that due to understandable time constraints of tenants, juggling the needs of children and other life necessities, that it would be more accessible for people if we held the workshops in the community rooms of each of tower block themselves. It means the tools and style will need to be adapted to accommodate those who have to drop in and out from the sessions – but we’re able and happy to do this. We also heard that some tenants don’t even know how to contact their landlord to make an initial complaint, so a new need has been identified to run workshops based on different stages.
This was an exciting piece of work to deliver, seeing the confidence in which participants took on board the information, their buzz in wanting to share this information with others, and their determination to demand changes and improvements to their housing in order to live in stable, comfortable and secure accommodation. It’s why the Early Doors project came about and why we will continue to support our communities, through listening, learning and delivering essential quality housing support.
Looking to make a complaint? Here is a useful flowchart on the formal complaints process that you may find useful.