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By Matthew Vickers

Chief Executive, Ombudsman Services

OTHER FEATURES

This needs to be the start of redress reform, not the end

The dust may have settled on the government’s recent announcement regarding housing and property complaints, but opinion is still split on whether the plan represents a game-changer or a missed opportunity.

To recap, housing secretary James Brokenshire MP last month unveiled plans for a Housing Complaints Resolution Service that will provide a single point of contact for tenants and homeowners seeking redress.

The service, which will signpost consumers to the relevant ombudsman or dispute resolution provider, forms part of a wider package of reform designed to give homeowners and tenants ‘simple and quick access to help when things go wrong’.

Other elements include the creation of New Homes Ombudsman to handle complaints about new-builds (as announced at last year’s Conservative Party conference) and a requirement for all private landlords to belong to a third-party redress scheme.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) says a Redress Reform Working Group will be established to help develop the proposals and improve standards of redress across the housing market.

Missed opportunity?

For me, there is some merit in the reforms.

They represent an acknowledgement by the government that it must act to fix the broken housing complaints system. They also demonstrate an awareness of the need to improve access to, and awareness of, redress in housing as part of that action.

At this point, I should declare an interest. Ombudsman Services stopped handling housing and property complaints last year because we believed redress in the sector was too complex and wasn’t working for consumers.

We felt strongly that housing redress needed to be more comprehensive, easier for consumers to navigate and part of a wider, strategic effort to build a housing and property sector that truly has consumers at its heart.

MHCLG’s proposals represent a step in the right direction and we broadly welcome them, but we feel there is a lot of work still to be done.

Reasons to be cheerful

It’s positive that there will be single point of access to alternative dispute resolution in housing. The new portal-style signposting service has the potential to simplify and improve the early stages of the complaints process for consumers.

Having invested a lot in making our own service more accessible and user friendly, we’ve learnt a lot about complainant mindsets and customer journeys and would be happy to share some of our insights.

We also know that a front-end portal is only part of building a system that has the consumer at the centre.

The government’s commitment to setting ‘clear expectations’ for accessibility, transparency, timeliness and sanctions in terms of complaint handling is welcome as it should help to ensure consistency across the various schemes and providers operating within the sector.  

Data and insights

It’s vital that data about complaints in the housing and property sector is shared between the different schemes and providers, in order to create a complete and meaningful picture of issues and trends.

Otherwise, the valuable data held by each provider will continue to be analysed and used in isolation.  

In our view, the proposed working group that will help develop the reforms would benefit from bringing in expertise and insights from other sectors that are further along the redress reform path.

Looking beyond the government’s recent announcement, it’s crucial that efforts to improve outcomes for consumers go beyond redress. 

In order to raise standards and build consumer trust and confidence in the housing sector, policymakers should focus on the entire regulatory landscape, of which redress is just one part.

Only then can we deliver the transformative change that the sector so badly needs.

*Matthew Vickers is chief executive and chief ombudsman at Ombudsman Services

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