The Property Ombudsman has been working on several key changes to both its Board and internal processes. These are changes which were flagged at TPO’s Conference in June and in trade articles and in the Annual Report earlier this year. As membership numbers grow following Ombudsman Services’ decision to withdraw redress to consumers in the property sector, the changes will support greater efficiency and effectiveness for both consumers and agents.
TPO’s Board and Council have now been replaced by one Unitary Board which will be more externally facing, focussing on education and key issues. It means that pressing issues will no longer have to be approved by two parties and therefore will be approved more quickly. The Board will retain a majority of independent members and will be Chaired by Baroness Diana Warwick.
The changes mean that Gerry Fitzjohn, former Chairman of the Board, and Michael Stoop, former Vice Chairman of the Board will take up the positions of Non-Executive Directors on the new Unitary Board. Michael Stoop will also take on the role of Chair of the Industry Forum which will feed back industry matters and concerns. The Forum is representative of all areas in the property sectors including Scotland and Wales. A separate Consumer Forum will be chaired by Mark McLaren, an independent Board Member. This Forum will discuss issues where existing harm to consumers can be identified and, wherever possible, eliminated through best practice and/or changes to the Codes of Practice. The Fora will meet on 18th October.
Over the last 6 months, TPO has welcomed an additional 247 Residential Leasehold Management (RLM) firms, benefitting from TPOs specially trained adjudicators who can provide advice and guidance on complex leasehold management issues. In addition, 1,169 Residential Agents at Head Office and 507 Agents at branch offices have also joined. The total membership figure at mid- August was 19,557 (Head Offices and branches) a number which continues to grow.
As TPO’s membership grows, and with the Government’s focus firmly fixed on creating a culture of consumer protection in the housing market, how agents handle complaints is more important than ever. “Despite being at the centre of complaint handling, it is apparent that the industry sometimes struggles with how to approach complaint handling in a consistent way. In response, we are committed to driving up standards by putting even greater emphasis on education, giving agents the right tools to handle complaints more effectively themselves” says Katrine Sporle, Property Ombudsman.
TPO has launched a new online training module, which provides practical training to the desk of front-line agency staff and those specifically tasked with responding to complaints and resolving disputes. For the first 1,000 Agents who purchase TPO’s Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs) course, they will receive the Complaints Handing course for free. Full details are available at http://training.tpos.co.uk/ Completion will earn agents Continuing Professional Development (CPD) points. In addition, TPO has launched a Complaint Handling Toolkit which is free for Agents to download and includes template letters, flowcharts and guidance [LINK HERE].
TPO has installed the latest RESPOND system which will remind both consumers and agents of upcoming deadlines and inform them of who is handling their case work. Furthermore, following a comprehensive review, TPO has made changes to its Terms of Reference. Key changes include shorter response times for both parties and the simultaneous issuing of proposed decisions to both consumer and agent. This is an important move, addressing the criticism of perceived bias towards agents by consumers when agents saw the decision first (when a complaint was supported) and perceived bias towards consumers by agents when consumers received the decision first (when a complaint was not supported). It will benefit both parties by emphasising fairness and transparency throughout the process. And it will significantly speed up decision making.
Katrine Sporle concludes: “We have invested a significant amount of time and effort into reviewing the areas of our organisation which need refinement and implementing changes which will significantly benefit all who use our service. While the future landscape of redress in the property sector remains unclear, we will continue to find positive solutions to the needs of consumers and the industry.”