Thank you for the comments on my recent blog post on tackling the arrear. Maintaining strong communication with the legal profession is something I feel very strongly about, and I am always pleased when people take the time to get in touch.
Given that the points raised could be of wider interest to our customers I felt that a follow up blog would be the most direct and transparent way to provide a response.
I would like to start by being clear that it is a source of great disappointment to me that, despite the positive progress RoS has made in the last year on several fronts, the arrear has got worse. Since I joined RoS in 2018 and recognised that we had an arrear, and that it was unacceptable; I and my staff have worked hard to identify how to clear it and ensure that it does not return.
Prior to the pandemic we were making positive progress, week after week more cases were being despatched than were arriving and the arrear was starting to clear. We had also recruited new colleagues who could be trained on the more straightforward cases, releasing more experienced colleagues to tackle the older more complex cases. Technological developments planned for 2020 would have further improved our ability to process new cases with fewer staff, thereby releasing even more people to work on the older cases. In short, we were confident that we had cracked the problem of the arrear.
Unfortunately, the impact of the pandemic affected our plans. Newly arrived colleagues could not be trained as quickly as planned, colleagues had to be diverted to work on the development and delivery of the new digital systems that allowed the housing market to keep operating, and it also took time to enable colleagues to work from home.
Throughout all of this I am proud that we met our most fundamental service standard of ensuring that everything was taken onto the application record on the day we received it. However, our capacity to despatch new applications, never mind continue to work on those we already had in house was severely impacted. As a result, the arrear has grown, and we find ourselves with a bigger problem to solve than we had in 2018.
Please be assured that I recognise the impact these delays can have on customers, and I firmly believe that not completing applications within our defined service standards is unacceptable.
Finding ourselves in a position where all our hard work over the last three years had been undone has required a re-think about how we can tackle the problem and get back to the positive position we were in prior to the pandemic as quickly as possible.
I am confident that our new arrear strategy is an effective way to achieve our goals for our customers. I want to use this blog as an opportunity to provide some additional clarity on why this is the case.
Q: Why deal with the new cases when it’s the older cases that people will be worried about? / Are you creating a two-tier system which favours newer cases? / How does the ring fence improve the situation?
As you will appreciate having a case in the arrear does not, in the majority of cases, have any material impact on the property owner who is awaiting the finalisation of their registration. Their case is on the application record from the day we receive it and there is nothing, in principle, that the owner is prevented from doing whilst the case awaits registration. Our expedite process exists to deal with those cases where a problem has arisen due to the case not yet being registered. There is also very little risk that the case will not be registered (i.e., that it will be rejected) and for those cases that are rejected we have an effective process to ensure they can be fast-tracked through the system when they are re-submitted.
RoS has historically chosen to tackle our stock of work by age. This approach was appropriate when every case was processed manually as there was no way to deal differently with newly arriving cases. Innovative technologies, new collaborative ways of working and improvements in the data we collect from customers have provided opportunities to improve the speed and efficiency with which we can process newly arriving cases. This will provide benefit to both RoS and our customers.
Introducing a new way of working for new cases is the key to releasing more colleagues to tackle the older cases – and for this reason we are choosing to tackle the total stock of work in two separate ways.
We will increase the speed that new registrations are being processed and reduce the time it takes to register
Introducing new ways of working on new applications will allow us to do two things – avoid new cases becoming arrear cases and increase the resource we have available to deal with our existing arrear.
Reducing the processing time for cases that have benefitted from RoS’ new technologies, will allow us to deal with them more quickly. This is vital to prevent new cases becoming arrear cases. The service standard date for each type of case is a threshold – for example, a case that is five months and 30 days old will become an arrear case the very next day when it hits the six-month point. Getting to the point where no new cases ever become arrear cases is a core part of ensuring that any approach to clearing the arrear also prevents a new arrear from arising.
Some customers have suggested that we should focus on the arrear instead of being distracted by the development of new digital systems. I am clear that these systems are a vital part of helping us clear the arrear.
We have been encouraged by the way our customers have embraced digital working over the last year. By continuing to support these new services you are allowing us to increase the level of automation present in the registration process for new cases and free up colleagues to work on the older, more complex cases. By approaching it in this way, we are stemming the flow of cases that we are adding to the arrear and will be able to ring-fence the volume of applications within it.
We will ring fence the arrear
RoS will ringfence our older casework so we can set targets and keep customers fully informed of our progress as we drive down the numbers of older cases. This will help us build momentum in the reduction of the arrear over time and customers will be able to see consistent progress against the targets that we set ourselves. In addition, we have taken steps to increase our operational capacity. The pandemic had a significant impact on the planned training of colleagues we had previously recruited to meet this need. This meant that staff who would have been fully trained and ready to tackle the older, more complex applications are still at an earlier stage in their training.
For now, focusing them on the more straightforward cases is doing two things. Firstly, it is building their experience to turn to more complex cases in due course. Secondly, it is ensuring that more experienced case workers are fully focused on older cases (rather than training/mentoring new staff). Building our teams with a variety of staff experience levels will also help us to better balance how we deal with old versus new cases.
We will continue to recruit new staff where we believe that is the right solution to increasing capacity, but I am clear that just bringing in lots of additional staff is not a silver bullet to solve the problem. Training new staff to the standards required to work effectively is a time-consuming process so they are not available immediately to start solving the problem and their training takes time from more experienced staff so actually slows down progress on the older cases temporarily.
We will also continue to investigate if any technological intervention could help speed up the process of clearing the arrear. However, we think this is unlikely and therefore maximising the number of colleagues available to work on the arrear is the solution to clearing the arrear, but as noted above this must be done without compromising the rate of despatch for new cases – as we will not have solved the problem if we clear the current arrear but another one builds up behind it.
Q: Why is the only target to clear the arrear limited to reducing all pre 2021 arrear cases by between 1000 and 1800 by June 2021?
We believe that we best serve our customers and the organisation by setting short, stretching, targets which are timely, responsive, and achievable. By setting targets on a quarterly basis this ensures that we can make best use of our immediate resources, take account of the buoyancy and fluctuations in the housing market, be more responsive to our customers and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to clearing the cases which will have the biggest impact. By keeping our targets under close and constant review RoS colleagues will be highly focused on meeting our goals and customers will have a clear message on exactly what they can expect from us.
We will shortly be publishing our progress against our Q1 arrear target, and I am pleased to be able to report that we have exceeded this target. We had deliberately set a cautious target for Q1 as we were unsure of how well we could account for market fluctuations etc. Exceeding our target strengthens our confidence in our ability to account for market fluctuations and expected internal productivity increases when we set future targets for Q2 and beyond.
RoS regularly reviews our performance against our targets, and I can assure customers that our ambitions are not limited to the next quarter. Our aim through the life of the current corporate plan is to revisit and increase our arrear clearing target each quarter as more resource becomes available.
Q: Do your mitigations go far enough?
RoS recognises that there are circumstances in which an application not being completed on the land register will impact our customers or their clients. RoS has implemented several mechanisms that will minimise the impact on our customers. We are committed to working collaboratively to find the right resolution to any issue. While we recognise that they are not a solution in themselves to the whole problem of the arrear, we feel that they offer practical and meaningful support to customers who need help with their case whilst we have an arrear. These are:
The expedite service is a transparent mechanism in which customers can apply to have their application completed out of turn. In the comments on my previous blog the requirement to demonstrate hardship was raised.
I would like to assure customers that these requirements are an essential part of the process and are supported by evidence to ensure that no customer is prioritized over another unless there is a genuine need for us to do so. It is important to note that we accept evidence of the potential for hardship, customers should not wait until actual hardship has occurred before requesting an expedite. Since we introduced the policy in October 2018, we have expedited 2,959 cases. The typical turnaround time for an expedite case is currently 18 days but we can turn cases round more quickly in an emergency.
If you have an application whereby the case not being completed is likely to cause a personal or financial hardship (to you or your customer) please contact one of our customer relationship managers at CRTeam@ros.gov.uk or on 0800 1699391. They will assist you in determining the appropriate evidence that RoS will require to meet our expedite criteria.
Free copies of Deeds still to be registered
If your case is still waiting to be processed, you will not be disadvantaged waiting for Deeds. Submitting agents can either request a copy of the documents, which will be provided free of charge, or the documents will be returned to you.
Three Month Rejection Policy
Once an application has been with RoS for more than three months, then we will only reject the application if we absolutely have to, otherwise we will work with customers to resolve any issues to allow the application to be completed.
In the very small number of cases where an application is rejected, one of my senior advisors will contact the customer ahead of time to explain the reason for rejection. We also work closely with the Solicitor and Lender (if applicable) to arrange for the smooth processing of the case when the application is re-submitted. We are not aware of a single case where a late rejection has not been resolved and the application has therefore not been able to be taken back on.
Q: How many cases has RoS been legally obliged to reject since it implemented its ‘no rejection after 3 months’ policy?
Since we implemented the policy in October 2018 RoS has rejected 1363 cases that have been with us for more than three months. This represents well below 1% of the total applications received in this period.
In all of those cases a discussion will have taken place between the applicant and my staff about the issue and the possible solutions. In some cases, the applicant’s preference is to withdraw the application. We have a dedicated team who perform this function and, of the cases they deal with, they manage to avoid rejecting applications in roughly three out of four cases that have been with us for three months or more.
Q: Did RoS achieve its First Registration Target in March 2021?
Yes, RoS did meet our target of clearing the 2017 FR applications for the applications that were within our control to be completed. There were 208 applications that were outwith RoS’ control (where customer input to resolve a problem that was preventing registration was required) and we have actively worked with all these customers to ensure that they can be completed effectively.
Q: Is the arrear getting worse?
In the comments on my last blog, it was suggested that the situation with the arrear could in fact be deteriorating. As discussed in my opening remarks the arrear certainly got worse during the first few months of the pandemic but looking at our products across the board, I can assure you that the arrear is now stable. This is an achievement, as with our previous efforts between 2018 and 2020 to tackle the arrear the first goal was to stop the problem growing, and we have now achieved this again.
I would however note that RoS continuously manages peaks and troughs in terms of the flow of its case work on a week-to-week basis. We have also experienced a high level of intake over recent months which has been over and above the usual end of the year rise. This can be attributed to the current strong performance in the property market, amendments to the Land and Building Transaction Tax ending, as well as the increased number of applications submitted before our Fee Review changes came into effect.
Overall, I am confident that stock numbers will continue to stay stable or trend down as we reach Q3 in the financial year. Beyond Q3, barring any unforeseen further problems from the pandemic, we expect to start seeing a consistent trending down of the arrear cases, whilst we simultaneously improve the turnaround time of new cases.
This is the key to creating a virtuous circle – new cases being delivered more and more automatically by increased capability and use of our digital systems, this releases more colleagues to work on the oldest cases leading to an acceleration of the speed with which we can clear our arrear and prevent it from ever returning.
Please do get in touch in you have any further questions about our approach to clearing the arrear and delivering on our service standards. I would also welcome any thoughts from customers on how we can ensure that customer adoption of our new digital services is as high as possible, so we can all collectively realise the maximum benefits that these systems will offer in terms of speed and efficiency of the service RoS can offer.