According to the results of a freedom of information request the average wait on the housing repairs phone line was 6 minutes 43 seconds in October. Tenants who are waiting for 20-40 minutes will look on these statistics with scepticism, especially as the message on the phone line tells us that the average wait is more that 20 minutes. If the average wait is less than seven minutes why are we told it’s more than 20? They can’t both be right. Is this message a crude means of making people end the call and to force them to go on-line? STCG has asked council officers to take this message off but thus far they have refused.

Even if the statistics we have been given are accurate it is still an appalling service. The industry standard for abandoned calls is 8-10 %, yet the average on the housing repairs line for the year up to October was 55% abandoned calls (see table below). There were 38,000 abandoned calls on the repairs phone line, as compared to 31,000 calls answered. Add the abandoned calls for other housing issues on the same line and that is nearly 58,000. So the housing phone line has 48% of abandoned calls for the council overall.

The council is hoping that these numbers will come down as people turn to the internet. But that depends on whether the system works well. The jury is still out on that.

Emergency repairs

It’s bad enough that people are struggling to report repairs which might be urgent, such as a central heating boiler going down, but tenants are told to report emergency repairs on the same line. This makes no sense. Not only is it potentially disastrous for the tenants. It can lead to money being wasted. It may well increase the cost to the housing revenue account if tenants cannot report emergencies quickly and easily. The phone lines should either be adequately staffed or there should be a separate number for emergencies.

Martin Wicks, Secretary of Swindon Tenants Campaign Group said:

The consequences of inadequate staffing in the Call Centre are being suffered disproportionately by council tenants. The rate of abandoned calls is five times worse than the industry standard, yet the council is proposing to cut the staff even further. In the current financial year to October, the average number of staff on the phones has been less than 10 in five of seven months, as compared to a nominal staffing level of 12.4 Full-Time Equivalent posts.

The move to “digitisation by default”, with its 85% target, was irresponsible and reckless. It is a guaranteed means of providing a worse service. The 20 minute plus message on the housing repairs lines appears to be a means of pressuring tenants to go on-line.

The average percentage of agency staff in the call centre across 2018 has been two thirds. With the best will in the world this means these staff won’t have the same level of knowledge as permanent staff. When it comes to housing repairs the detail can be quite complicated. If the wrong information is taken down then council staff calling at our homes can easily turn up to find the job they are expecting is not the one which needs doing and they may not have the necessary piece of kit. This is a waste of time and resources. For tenants who have to take time off work to be in, this is doubly frustrating.

What we really need is a dedicated team of permanent staff who develop the knowledge to enable a job to be done on the first visit.

In relation to emergency repairs it makes no sense directing them to a phone bank which is staffed by insufficient numbers to enable reporting in good time. If there was adequate staffing then it wouldn’t be a problem. Otherwise there should be a separate number which staff can respond to as a priority.”

Note: In 2018 to October the Call Centre had 318,000 calls but the capacity to answer calls is only 19,000 a month. As a consequence there were more than 121,000 calls abandoned.

This is a Swindon Tenants Campaign Group media release – December 12th 2018

To view the tables of calls see the PDF here: emergencyrepairs