Prior to the pandemic Swindon’s council tenants were able to phone in any housing repair. During the pandemic the housing department stopped doing non-urgent repairs, so the phones were only dealing with emergency and urgent jobs. Obviously this was understandable given the risk to the health of staff and tenants.
However, the council, which has been trying to pressure tenants into going on-line, decided this was an opportunity to stop tenants phoning in non-urgent repairs. Their publication Tenant Focus said:
“You will no longer be able to call Customer Services to report repairs, unless you are calling to report an emergency or urgent repair job or you are particularly vulnerable. Instead you will be asked to book your repair online, which will allow Customer Services to prioritise those who need support most.”
Would a 99 year old tenant be ‘vulnerable’? We know of such a tenant who rang in a problem with her lights. Switching on the kitchen strip light tripped a circuit turning other lights off. Apparently this was not an emergency so she was told to report it on-line. How can you know if somebody is vulnerable unless you check who they are and look at their details on the computer system?
Vulnerable or not, this mandatory on-line reporting of non-urgent repairs was a change of service which the council pushed through without consulting tenant reps or the broader tenant body. To do so was to treat tenants with contempt.
What is at issue here is the right of tenants to chose how they contact the council. At the time when the council was proposing to introduce its Customer Access Strategy, it’s rush for digitisation to save money, it said this:
“All customers have fair and equal access to services and greater control over how they receive and access those services.”
The housing department has taken away that choice.
Obviously on-line reporting is beneficial for those who are comfortable with it, if it works. However, in the rush to what I described as “austerity digitisation” (it was about saving money rather than as the council said improving the service) the on-line repairs service was, forgive the cliché, not fit for purpose. So tenants had the choice between a phone service with insufficient staff, meaning it was very difficult to get through, and an on-line system which was rubbish.
Whilst tenants were involved in a panel to discuss improvements, some of which have been implemented, its work was cut short by the pandemic. If that panel had still been meeting obviously we would have opposed the change if we had been made aware of a proposal.
Not only does this discriminate against people without internet access, even if you have it it does not guarantee that you can negotiate the system. There have been problems with doing so on smart phones, for instance, and even problems logging into it.
Tenant representatives have rightly demanded that the council overturns its unilateral decision and accepts the right of tenants to contact the council as they choose. The council should hold its hand up, admit it should not have imposed this change, and reinstate tenants right to choose.