Interview with the Housing Ombudsman

In this interview, Richard Blakeway speaks to CT Partner, James Tickell, and discusses his priorities and outlines what he thinks needs to change in the sector.

James Tickell ( JT): Richard, you’ve become a prominent personality in the world of housing. And yet not many people know you very well, what you did before, or how you came to housing. You’ve become real activist for change in the sector, And I’m sure people would like to find out more about you.

Richard Blakeway (RB): Yes, that is a glittering way of describing it. This is not about me, but about the service. In some countries, the Ombudsman may be called a public protector for example. For myself, I do have an overwhelming sense of public service. I know that sounds like a cliché. But this is something very deep and something I learned from my father, who was very involved in public service.

JT: Tell us a bit about your father please?

RB: Well he was born around the time that Adolf Hitler became the German Chancellor. He came from a different era, as fathers do. He was very committed to voluntary work, and was a city councillor, where he had responsibility for housing. So he had a strong sense of public service and was also a trade union shop steward. So I think I learned that from him.

JT: So when you were a child, did you know what you wanted to do in later life?

RB: Well, when I was in single digits I probably wanted to be a train driver or something like that. But at the age of 11, I declared at school that I wanted to be the chancellor of the exchequer. The teacher told me that I should focus my attention elsewhere.

JT: I guess you missed the boat on that one?

RB: I did, and it looks like a really tough job right now.

JT: So were you a quiet and studious child, or perhaps a rowdy and naughty one?

RB: Well I’m not sure I remember. I do remember doing work experience as a young teenager, at a solicitors. I remember the partner telling me that I was far too serious. He said you’re likeable, but serious.

When I was even younger I remembering people being picked to help at the summer fete. I thought my goodness, nobody’s picked me. It was like the football team. Anyway, I was the last one to be picked, and they made me auctioneer for the charity sale! So I may have been serious, but I obviously had a loud voice too.

The school careers advisor told me that I should be a psychologist, which would have been fascinating. But I studied at the university of Hull, reading British politics and legislative studies. I was going to do law, but I decided this looked more interesting. The course was created by a professor called Philip Norton, who became Lord Norton of Louth he was a fantastic academic, and he created a whole mafia around him, and I was one of them. Many of them have gone off and done wonderful things in politics and the media and elsewhere.

JT: So, as an almost psychologist, what kind of personality type do you think you are?

RB: I’m not sure I know the answer to that one. I am a determined person, so when things go wrong I get stuck in and see it through. I also stop and reflect on it and wonder if there might be a different approach.

That can be difficult if there is injustice, but as you get older you do become more philosophical. In life, a lot comes down to serendipity, and timing. Things are never completely in your own control. Creativity is important, I’m like everyone else I have ideas. I probably have too many ideas at times, but I find it useful to to get other people’s ideas as well. They might actually have an idea that is better than mine, and I’m pretty good at spotting good ideas from others.

I started off working for an amazing MP. He became a Select Committee chair, and and I had met him doing my degree. He said come and work in parliament for me. It was all very exciting.

JT: And what about your journey into housing, when did that begin?

RB: I was always genuinely interested in housing, not as a practitioner. Even at university, some of the work I did was around post war rebuilding and regeneration. But when I became a deputy mayor at the GLA I became really involved in policy work on housing.

Over the time I was at the GLA, housing became far more important to it, and it gained new powers. The big change was the Localism Act, which made the GLA a commissioner and an asset owner. Originally, the GLA was prevented from spending money on housing, and when that changed, and maybe that’s when I got the housing bug.

JT: And then you became a member of the board of the Institute of Housing?

RB: Yes, they had just put in place new governance arrangements, so it was really an inaugural board. I did that for about five years, and it was a wonderful group of people, fantastic minds, massive commitments to housing.

JT: And from there, to 10 Downing Street?

RB: Yes, I was only there for six months, but it was very much about housing and local government. There was a big devolution agenda, combined authorities, directly elected mayors, as well as housing. But it was during the EU referendum, so the circumstances were not normal.

JT: And then finally, you successfully applied for the Ombudsman vacancy. What was your agenda when you started is the new Ombudsman?

RB: I was appointed just after the Green Paper on social housing, so very clearly in my mind was the need to deliver on the aspirations in that. Residents had set out their views about how their landlords should be responsive accessible and aware. I also had a really strong idea that complaints should be a catalyst for change, and that I needed to focus on systemic issues.

And my third big thing was the way in which the ombudsman could become more central to the tenant landlord relationship.

JT: And now, some years on, you’ve been given a whole range of new powers. Maybe some people dread your involvement?

RB: Yes, some people are like that. They say it’s nice to meet you, but go on to hope that they don’t have to meet me professionally.

But an Ombudsman needs to occupy a space which is different to a regulator, or to the courts. The important thing is to develop the learning from complaints so that organisations can develop and improve their services. There’s an engagement you can have which is outside individual dispute resolution, more a space for learning.

When I started, I’m not sure there was a recognition of the role the Ombudsman should perform. It was all quite transactional. It was just the end of the complaints process – quite narrow, quite limited. And I would like to think now that the Ombudsman now is being seen in a broader way, part of the fabric of a really successful housing sector.

At the beginning, some people could be very defensive about our findings. Some of them were even dismissive. But that’s become less common.

Recent events underline the importance of having an accessible complaints process, which is not an adversarial space. I’m committed to transparency, and want people to understand the way in which we make our decisions and investigate complaints. It’s very different to a court of law. The ombudsman has a lot more discretion, which is different for other actors. We have an inquisitorial approach to evidence gathering. We carry out our own investigations, and don’t rely on the evidence presented.

I’d like to think now that we are part of the fabric of the sector. Now that we’ve started to publish our decisions and a lot more, the transparency is really good.

JT: So, when landlords make mistakes, sometimes it’s about organisational culture perhaps, or perhaps sometimes about data loss?

RB: It is 100% about culture. That cannot be underestimated. It’s about leadership and it’s about behaviours. The culture needs to be one of positive complaint handling, not being defensive, and learning. You need strong leadership to achieve that. And you’re right about information too. In the damp and mould report we published the year ago, we were making the point that the sector needs to become proactive with resident reports.

JT: And what about your own leadership style, as the head of the Ombudsman service?

RB: About two years ago, we looked at our vision and values, and we incorporated the idea that they were not only about resolving individual complaints, but about promoting learning and improvement. We came up with four very simple values – Fairness, Learning, Openness, and Excellence. Our plan is based around those, and every two weeks we come together as the whole organisation to look at one of those values.

I meet everyone, regardless of their role, who starts work at the Ombudsman, in a one to one meeting, and we get to know each other. I’m struck at how many new starters talk about the attraction of our culture and values. It’s a collegiate experience working here, and my leadership has to reflect that.

JT: Is there another Ombudsman who you particularly admire?

RB: I think the ombudsman in Ontario is doing some really important work. He has really championed the idea of systemic investigations, taking an independent impartial perspective. for instance, he did a big investigation into the time that certain prisoners were being kept in solitary confinement, and he discovered that the policy wasn’t being correctly implemented, and that some people were in solitary for 10 times longer than they should have been. It was amazing, he took one complaint, and then established data across several 100 instances.

I also think the local government ombudsman here in England does a great job. The work that they have done around data and transparency is ground breaking. Now anyone can go on their website, put in their post code and see exactly what issues have been raised in their neighbourhood.

Finally, I love the way in Holland, the ombudsman just shows up, and sits in a supermarket or shop and people can just come and meet and talk to them about their work. It would be great to replicate something like that here. I do already do lots of engagement, and every three months or so we have a meeting hosted by a different landlord in different parts of the country where people can come along and ask anything.

JT: That sounds really positive. Maybe you’ve got some few headline messages for chairs or chief executives who might be reading this interview? What have you got to say to them?

RB: Well I think to ask them how their leadership delivers the culture that is needed?

Secondly, I’d like to ask about their communications with residents, and if they are sure that they are effective? And then I’d ask have they thought about the insight that their complaints team can bring to service improvement?

I do think it’s important to make a big distinction between compliance and learning. Compliance is hard wired, but the learning sometimes seems a bit of an after thought. I do think landlords could develop a much better approach. Boards need to be thinking about their role as a governing body in terms of complaints. They should be championing the complaint stream, treating it almost like internal audit. As I’ve said, we need to move away from transactional view of complaints, and start using them to identify risks that might not be supported elsewhere. Damp and mould is a real case in point.

I also think that board members need to go out and see the homes and meet the tenants. Not necessarily the homes which are freshly painted, or nice new builds.

And I would say to that it’s worth reading our decisions. Not just getting briefed on them or reading a summary, but sitting down and reading the full report. Because where our findings point to severe maladministration, the report will tell you a lot.

JT: I notice that you are a board member of the British Library. Maybe you’ve got a couple of recommendations for books that we really must read?

RB: I’m buried in books at home- I love biographies. Very hard to choose just one or two. But here’s one I read quite recently – the author is David Reynolds, and the title is ‘Summits, Six meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century’. It takes you through years of diplomacy – Munich, Yalta Camp David and more. Some disastrous, some triumphant. All driven by personalities more than other factors. Fascinating.

And if I’m allowed one more, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov was wonderful. It’s about a loner who is an obituary writer, and lives in Kyiv with his pet penguin. Wonderful, very sparsely written, probably his first novel.

JT: How about a word of advice for the younger Richard Blakeway?

RB: The advice my father gave me – be patient.


A shortened version of this interview first appeared in CT Brief – Issue 63.

For comments or feedback, contact James Tickell, Partner, at Campbell Tickell on:


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