Council housing repairs: tenants should have a choice as to how they access the service
The latest Tenant Focus informs Swindon Council tenants that non-urgent repairs have to be dealt with on-line. No tenants have been consulted on this.
News in Tenant Focus that Swindon Borough Council tenants could only phone the council for emergency or urgent repairs, but otherwise had to use the on-line system, came out of the blue. The Council’s housing department did not consult tenant reps or the wider body of tenants before changing the system. During the pandemic lock-down, of course, non-urgent repair work was suspended. Prior to that you could report any repair on the phone, even though you were encouraged to use the on-line reporting system. The council’s website now says that the only exception to reporting non-urgent jobs on-line is ‘vulnerable people’. It does not even say if you don’t have internet access you can ring in for a repair.
Customer Access Strategy
The introduction of the on-line repairs reporting system in 2018 was part of the council’s new “Customer Access Strategy”. A Cabinet document on September 5th 2018 said:
“A key success measure of the Swindon Programme is that 85% of customer transactions are completed online by 2020. This ambitious target was set because the Council wishes to offer more convenience to residents by offering the opportunity to interact with us at a time which suits them. It also brings the Council in line with the way in which other organisations and companies offer services to the public. Furthermore, digital interactions are much cheaper for the Council to fulfil and, by offering digital services to those who want to use them, the Council is able to focus its resources on those for whom digital interaction is more problematic.” (our emphasis)
The real driver for this policy was government “austerity” which was responsible for huge cuts in central government funding to councils. Year after year their grant decreased. The talk of improving the service for customers echoed the same message from the banks as they closed down branches and did everything to pressure customers to go on-line. Rather than being implemented to improve the service on-line reporting was a form of “austerity digitisation” designed to save money.
Whilst the ability to use on-line services is convenient for those who are comfortable using it (if the system works well) the document clearly stated “All customers have fair and equal access to services and greater control over how they receive and access those services.” But in practice instead of residents and tenants having a choice the council has attempted to press them into going on-line.
In the housing department’s case an ill-prepared system was rushed through. A new IT system was introduced on October 18th 2018. It was said to enable tenants to report a repair online and book an appointment. However, so shoddy was the system that the council admitted (to give just one example) that
“…there is a delay in the appointment page loading, meaning that whilst tenants report a repair they are logged off before the appointment page loads.”
There were many other flaws in the system because a political decision by the ruling party was made to implement it regardless of the lack of preparation.
A Freedom of Information request in December 2018 suggested that the average waiting time on the phones was 6 minutes 43 seconds. This was received with some scepticism by tenants who were commonly finding themselves having to wait 20-40 minutes to get through. Yet curiously the message on the phones then was that waiting times were twenty minutes plus. Tenant reps asked the council to take this message off (it would clearly encourage people to hang up) but they refused.
That there were insufficient staff on the phones was reflected by a rate of abandoned calls of 55% on the housing repairs line, compared to an industry average of 8-10%. 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 was nearly 58,000. So the housing phone line had 48% of abandoned calls for housing issues overall.
Even if you managed to get an appointment booked on the system, it was impossible to change it. You had to ring up on the phones and struggle to get through along with everybody else. If the appointment wasn’t kept by the council you had to….ring up on the phones.
The Housing department itself admitted that the system was not ‘fit for purpose’ so a Tenant Review Process Group was set up with tenant reps. Unfortunately this was halted by the pandemic and the lock-down.
At the time of the lock down the council decided to cut out the regular work, carrying out emergency and urgent work only. Everyday repairs were due to begin again towards the end of September. But suddenly this was changed and we discovered that to book a non-urgent repair you had to do it online.
It’s bad enough that the Housing department took this decision without consulting tenants. Even worse, they present the information on line (‘request a housing repair’) in a cynical way. Instead of the explanation as to how you report a repair being at the top of the page, it says
“If you are a council tenant and there is a problem in your property that is our responsibility to fix, you can request a repair.
However, you may be able to fix the problem yourself. It is often quicker and easier to do minor repairs than arrange an appointment and wait for one of our engineers to come to you.”
They may as well have said, do it yourself rather than waiting for us to do it! Indeed there are do-it-yourself videos there to help you out. There is no accompanying information. So, for instance, there is a video showing you how to treat mould.
The fact is tenants pay their rent for a housing repairs service. What sort of impression does it create when the council is effectively saying it’s quicker for you to do it yourself that to have to go through the trouble of booking an appointment and waiting for our staff?
A clunky system
There are other faults with the web page. Whilst you can find out what constitutes an emergency there is no reference to urgent jobs. The council combined emergency with urgent jobs to ‘same day’. Yet information on what constitutes an urgent repair is missing.
There are still simple but intensely irritating (from the standpoint of the tenants) problems with the on-line reporting system. We know from the reports of tenants that there are problems getting into the system. Passwords (even correct ones) are sometimes not recognised. Tenants are being told by the system that the username is incorrect even though it isn’t. I personally have received this message, and not believing it, checked the password, which was incorrect. Changing this I was able to get into the system even though it had initially told me the username was incorrect! We have what one tenant described as “a clunky system”.
Whilst the council talks about tenants doing “minor repairs” not all of them are minor. Here’s the list:
Treat mould-affected areas
Tighten door handles
Replace broken toilet seats
Clear blocked sinks and basins
Reset thermostats, time clocks or trip switches
Fill small cracks and holes in a wall”
Mould in a house is a health risk, especially, where there are disabled tenants who might have respiratory problems. The cause of mould is often contested. It’s easy to say that the tenant hasn’t allowed circulation of air, it’s the result of condensation and so on. We know that in the winter it can be the result of tenants not turning on the heating because they cannot afford to. In some cases mould pre-dates the installation of central heating, in particular where two outside walls meet. Tenants should always call on the council to inspect the problem and assess its cause. Treating the symptoms will not resolve the problem and eradicate it. It is the responsibility of the council to deal with it.
As far as changing locks is concerned, the Tenant Process Review Group originally had a proposal before it, that one “minor repair”, was the changing of lock cylinders. This suggestion was abandoned because the tenants insisted that most of our doors now are UPVC and in any case we are not locksmiths. Yet the appearance of “change locks” into the list has taken place without any consultation of the tenants. It should be removed.
Tenant reps in Swindon have had a long battle with the management over its failure to seriously consult. It has too often gone through the motions and then implemented a pre-ordained decision. It’s failure to consult over this change in the fault reporting system is just the latest example. They have taken advantage of the hiatus with meetings resulting from the pandemic. They should withdraw this decision forthwith.
The customer access strategy clearly stated that “All customers have fair and equal access to services and greater control over how they receive and access those services.”
The unilateral decision of the housing department is the opposite of that commitment. Tenants should be able to choose how they access the service. They should not be forced marched to use an on-line service, especially one which is still not ‘fit for purpose’.
September 22nd 2020
Having just looked at the Council Tenants Handbook on-line I discovered that it says in the section “requesting a repair” that “you report a repair on-line” (other than an urgent or emergency one). No exceptions are shown.
In the discussion in the Tenant Review Process Group we were told that emergency and urgent jobs would be deemed as “same day” repairs. Yet the on-line version of the Tenant Handbook says that urgent repairs will be completed next working day. Obviously if you report late in one day that would be expected. But this is another change which has been implemented without consultation.