It seems not a week goes by when I don’t hear from a constituent with a shocking example of Southern Housing Group’s (SHG) dire customer service. Whilst MPs regularly receive correspondence from residents about housing problems, including some linked to SHG, there has been a noticeable, and sharp, uptick in the frequency their name is coming up in the casework I receive.
It raises the question, why? The big change at SHG is its merger with Optivo. This appears to have resulted in multiple changes to SHG’s top tier of management. Despite SHG’s Chief Executive, Paul Hackett, saying at the time of the merger that “Residents will be at the heart of our services” there’s little evidence this is actually happening on the ground. The evidence from the cases in my inbox suggests otherwise.
Clearly mergers and significant changes to the structure of an organisation can cause ripples elsewhere. Yet in SHG’s case, these ripples are becoming a tidal wave of backdated complaints and service issues.
One case example is a constituent who contacted me in May because SHG had failed to respond to the stage one formal complaint they submitted in November last year. After months of chasing SHG for a response, SHG implied in a message to me last week that “we’re unable to provide you with a full resolution for xxx, as there is still an active leak from the roof”.
It’s absurd to suggest that a resident’s complaint about SHG’s failure to undertake repair work cannot be formally responded to by them until the repairs have been completed. It raises a concern that SHG may be gatekeeping in order to prevent formal complaints from escalating to the Housing Service Ombudsman, who can investigate complaints about housing providers independently. This may also explain why SHG do not appear to have logged complaints from residents in multiple cases I’ve been contacted about.
SHG repeatedly say that they adhere to the Housing Ombudsman Service's (HOS) Complaints Handling Code, ignoring the fact that at every stage of their complaints process there’s evidence that they simply don’t. Either SHG are fobbing people off in their replies, or they have a complete lack of understanding about their complaints process, or the contents of the Ombusdman’s Code they say they follow.
SHG’s Kafkaesque and impenetrable approach to complaints handling is quite staggering. Yet their failures have a very real impact on tenants. Like my constituent who has been sofa surfing because the disrepair in his home has not been addressed in over eight months. In this case, SHG undertook external repairs to the property but omitted to do the internal work needed to make the property habitable after damage had occurred.
I have written to the Chief Executive at SHG about the dire situation and to express my significant concerns about the pattern of poor, and deteriorating, customer service and a failure to address problems residents raise with them in a timely way.
The problem hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Housing Ombudsman Service launched a special investigation into SHG back in June. I will be writing to the Ombudsman to share my concerns about SHG, and would be happy to share evidence I have from casework with them.
I am also writing to Brighton and Hove City Council about enforcement action. In one case I am aware of, I know that they have written to SHG about the disrepair on several occasions, and SHG has failed to respond. After drawing their attention to my concerns about SHG, BHCC say they will write to SHG for a third time. However, with SHG’s failures running so deep, I have asked BHCC to review its decision, and am questioning whether enforcement action can be taken without delay.
There’s clearly an urgent need for more robust regulation in the housing sector to ensure that tenants can hold housing providers to account, including when they fail to adhere to their legal responsibilities. In spite of ministerial dithering and delay on changes to national legislation, I will continue to make this case to the Government. We desperately need radical housing reform - not the sticking plaster proposals that are currently on offer.