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Tenant in 54-minute wait to phone Sandwell Council's housing department

Council tenants in Sandwell may be waiting up to 54 minutes to phone up their local housing departments, as councillors questioned the value for money of a new housing pilot scheme.

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Sandwell Council's new housing pilot scheme has been questioned by councillors

A report presented to the safer neighbourhood and active communities scrutiny board evaluated the ‘Housing Hub’, a pilot scheme aimed at diverting residents’ calls to officers from local housing teams.

Sandwell Council says the scheme will reduce waiting times, cut down on the number of people abandoning their calls, and get the right services to social housing tenants.

The Tenants’ and Leaseholders’ Scrutiny Group (TLSG) – a collection of local council tenants and council leaseholders who scrutinise Sandwell council’s housing services – conducted the report to test how accessible the council’s housing service is via telephone.

The group found that one tenant was on the phone for up to 54 minutes. While most calls are at a local rate, the group note, some packages can charge.

A 54-minute call to someone’s personal phone contract could equate to £10.80 on BT contract or £18.90 an EE contract, the report found.

TLSG conducted ‘mystery shopping’ of two phone numbers provided by Sandwell council’s housing department. The calls were made during office hours and at different times between 6- 14 June 2022.

In their report the group noted:

  • Only 14 per cent of residents calls made from Sandwell’s call centre have been dealt with by the ‘Housing Hub’ despite claims of the abandonment rate reduced.

  • No customer satisfaction surveys carried out from the start of the pilot.

  • No figures given on the total cost of the pilot, but 12 staff are employed on the scheme.

  • No staff satisfaction evidence or measurement that staff are receiving job satisfaction.

Delroy Thomas, a member of TSLG, told the meeting: “We want our reports to be written in a language that tenants and leaseholders understand. We also want to be involved in ensuring that we carry out independent research when we scrutinise housing services.”

The telephone service to Sandwell Council’s housing department is delivered in two ways, the report states. A large call centre deals with all council enquiries – including housing matters. In October 2021, a ‘Housing Hub’ pilot was established to quicken ‘first point of contact’ with Sandwell’s housing team.

According to the report, the Housing Hub deals with only 15 per cent of general housing calls and operates daily between 9am and 1pm Monday – Friday. Repairs enquiries are only covered by the call centre.

Conservative councillor David Fisher, who is also leader of the opposition, said waiting times for residents on the phone to the authority’s housing department was “totally unacceptable”.

He said he had personal experience of being on the phone for "long periods of time" when trying to call Sandwell Council.

“I do understand and I know first hand, how frustrating it is to be put on hold for some considerable amount of time," he said.

Nigel Collumbel, the assistant director for housing, said the delays are attributable to the pilot scheme operating on partial hours. “As we roll into next year, and we’ve completed the recruitment, we’ll get that up and running fully operational.”

But Councillor Fisher said discussions going into the new year were not good enough.

He said: “I think we need definitive dates when that’s going to be introduced otherwise, this could just keep going on and on and on.

“You touch on about customer satisfaction, if I’ve been on the phone for 54 minutes and ask me to complete a survey that will last another two to three minutes, I’m just going to hang up.

“There’s no way I’m going to spend any more time on the phone. You need to bear that in mind. If somebody’s got a quick response to them on the phone in two or three minutes, then they’ll probably happily take two or three minutes extra time to complete the survey.”

But Mr Collumbel defended the waiting times and claimed the information in the tenant’s survey has “aged”.

He told councillors: “The implementation of the pilot did reduce the waiting times. So your waiting times fluctuate across the whole contact centre depending on service demands, but they are much better since we introduced the pilot.

“With additional resources coming in as we rolled the pilot out we hope to create additional capacity as well.”

But Councillor Ellen Fenton, chair of the safer neighbourhood and active communities scrutiny board, challenged Mr Collumbel about the wait times.

“The pricing was given by the board, as set by the price that you gave them. It is within scrutiny’s remit to always take that worst case scenario and go: ‘This is the worst case scenario for this resident, what are we going to do about it?’.

"Not the bits where we’ve won, not the calls where it took them two minutes, but the other end of the spectrum is what we are drilling down on here.”