A new perspective

Meet Rebecca Marsh, the industry’s new Property Ombudsman. Fresh into her new role, The Negotiator presses her on the key issues that face the industry and TPO.

Link to TPO interview with Rebecca Marsh

Where does TPO fit into the post-ROPA world of an over-arching ‘regulator’?

Regulation, underpinned by enforcement and redress are parts of a virtuous circle – the Regulator seeks to prevent bad things happening and the Ombudsman puts it right when they inevitably do, providing both insight and a critical friend to the Regulator as needed. They are fundamentally different roles, and they look at issues through completely different lenses, but both have a shared role in making things better for everyone, consumers and industry alike. The overriding objective is to increase people’s trust and confidence in the sector, and this is greatest where they feel they have a voice, and are heard if things should go wrong.

The overriding objective is to increase people’s trust and confidence in the sector, and this is greatest where they feel they have a voice.

As an Ombudsman, I have had regulators in all my previous sectors – indeed it is new to me to be in a sector without one. Regulators deliver on behalf of the government’s policy objectives around matters such as market behaviour, competition and protection and a good Ombudsman provides challenge and support in terms of intelligence, to enable them to do so effectively. However, an Ombudsman’s ultimate function is to put things right where they have already gone wrong.

The two will often work together to prevent problems from happening again if they can, but a regulator is, and should be, a tool of state set apart from an Ombudsman that should always be an independent voice. I am sure that the sector will find significant benefits from good, outcome focussed regulation overseen by the Regulator, and both sector and Regulator will benefit from a strong, independent Ombudsman. In this respect the Regulation of Property Agents Report (RoPA) is a significant step towards this objective and TPO is supportive of the framework it proposes for regulating the agency sector.

Do you think TPO could do more to alert the industry to rogue operators earlier on – by the time they get ejected from TPO they’re usually long gone.

The key to dealing with rogue operators in the sector is to ensure enforcement bodies have the information they need to take action quickly.

TPO already has a referral process where ‘rogue’ agents are referred to the National Trading Standards Estate and Letting Agency Team (NTSELAT) for potential enforcement action where we see systemic or fitness to practice issues and/or potential criminal activity. The referral can happen at any stage of the TPO process and this system has been in place for some time now.

As the new Ombudsman I am passionate about improving trust and confidence in the sector, so sharing information, data and insight appropriately is high on my agenda.

Can you give agents an assurance that its fees won’t go up again?

No, anymore than agents can assure me that complaints will go down! TPO has a transparent fee structure which reflects the costs of dealing with the level of complaints we receive. Until last year, membership subscriptions had remained at the same level for six years, but against a profile of rising enquiries and complaints, the board directed a “root and branch” review of the scheme’s activities and fees.

Membership subscriptions had remained at the same level for six years, but against a profile of rising enquiries and complaints.

The result was a fee structure that includes the potential for an annual increase to cover rising costs resulting from rising workloads.

It is worth reiterating here that TPO is a ‘not for profit’ Ombudsman which means any surplus is invested back into improving the service rather than paid to shareholders.

That said what we all want to see is less complaints, so what I will commit to is to work with agents to improve their responses to complaints in order that our shared workload is reduced. What the sector should take a moment to understand is that the true cost of complaints is not in the fees to the Ombudsman but in its reputation and the level of additional assurance and work needed from agents to manage that and to respond to complaints.

We need to work on that together particularly in light of the current economic challenges. One thing I have already seen that can be easily fixed is agents’ responses to initial complaints. While the complaint may not have merit, often a dreadful response made to a complainant gives them substance as well as a motivation to persevere with their issue.

I learnt early on in my commercial career that complaints were more financially and emotionally draining when not seen as an opportunity for customer insight. Once you see them as a resource for getting a commercial edge, they become much easier to deal with and add value to the business offering. In such a competitive world, any customer insight and any risk to reputation needs active and positive management and response.

What do you feel is the most pressing problem should be tackling with agents – dual fees? Referral fees? CMP?

Link to TPO interview with Rebecca MarshAt the moment, putting the pandemic aside, there is no single specific problem that sits above the other issues within the sector.

However, the RoPA report is significant here as the future culture it seeks to establish through its recommendations is one of increasing trust and confidence in the sector.

Trust and confidence starts with agents and this translates into simple actions such as delivering on promises made, dealing with complaints fairly and effectively and disclosing information that consumers need to know to enable them to make informed decisions.

TPO has always fed back to the sector to help raise standards, but the RoPA report signals a culture change towards a more professional and regulated sector. This means that agents who are open, compliant, deal with complaints effectively and ensure their staff are appropriately trained are already ahead of the game.

What will you do different to Katrine Sporle [previous incumbent]? Do you have a different vision?
Katrine Sporle image
Rebecca’s predecessor, Katrine Sporle

I feel lucky to have inherited a really sound platform to build on with an organisation in TPO that does more for its sector than many other Ombudsmen are able to. Katrine’s work in raising standards has been pivotal and I want to build on this by driving it into a wider trust and confidence agenda. This is especially important at a time when there is pressure on the property sector to support the nation’s economic recovery, which makes our role at TPO even more crucial.

I want to use the strengths we have to help both agents and those using services to benefit. This will mean engaging with the wider public to share improvements arising from issues we see alongside highlighting cases where things have been done well. This helps to generate that trust and confidence, which also provides reassurance when people are feeling uncertain.

In a world where nothing is certain, anything that offers reassurance and confidence can only make life easier for agents and consumers.

Should agents be worried by your lack of property background experience?

No, quite the contrary! Professionally, I am an Ombudsman – but the largest area of complaint at the Legal Ombudsman, my previous organisation, was in conveyancing and property related matters, especially surrounding leasehold property.

This means I come to the role equipped with insight into issues in the sector. Indeed, it was the issues and challenges I have spoken of that enticed me to the role.

The largest area of complaint at the Legal Ombudsman, my previous organisation, was in conveyancing and property related matters.

On a personal level, at various times in my life I have been a tenant, a landlord, purchased leasehold property and naturally bought and sold houses on numerous occasions – indeed I am currently selling my parents’ home for them! Whilst my key strength is driving sector improvement, over my career I have run successful commercial organisations. I have also worked in local government on strategic planning issues and economic development.

But importantly for the sector, I have also worked in regulation and know what good regulation looks like to achieve a vibrant and confident market. We have a wealth of property experience at TPO and no one person will have all the technical experience to cover all our jurisdictions, but with the breadth of my wider background I will bring a new perspective and I don’t doubt I will be able to add value.

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