Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 23 Aug 2019
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman upholds parts of the complaint from Ms X about the way the Council has handled an application for a Disabled Facilities Grant for her children. The Council was not at fault for suggesting alternatives to adapting the property, and was not at fault for placing limits on what the grant would pay for. However, it delayed in appointing an architect, raised Ms X’s expectations and has not communicated effectively. The Council will apologise to Ms X and pay her and her children in recognition of the distress and frustration this has caused. It will also remind staff to check any proposed works meet the needs of the applicant before issuing plans and will appoint a key contact for each application.
- Ms X complains the Council has delayed in agreeing a Disabled Facilities Grant for adaptations to her home. She says the Council’s communication has been poor and it has shown a lack of understanding of her children’s needs and the impact on her as a carer. She says as a result her children remain living in accommodation which does not meet their complex needs.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the complaint made by Ms X and the documents she provided.
- I considered the Council’s comments about the complaint and the documents it provided in response to my enquiries.
- I also considered the Ombudsman’s focus report, ‘Making a house a home: Local Authorities and disabled adaptations’ published in 2016.
- I gave Ms X and the Council an opportunity to comment on my draft decision and considered their responses.
What I found
- Under the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996, councils can award Disabled Facilities Grants (DFG) to people whose disability means their home needs adaptation. If the person applying meets the qualifying criteria the council must award the grant.
- Councils only approve grants for work they decide is necessary. An occupational therapist usually assesses need. Where a district council is responsible for DFGs, the occupational therapist may work for a county council.
- The maximum amount of mandatory grant is £30,000. Grants for children are not means-tested. Councils can decide to give more help if they think it is necessary. Councils should make decisions about grants as soon as they can and must do so within six months of the date of receiving a valid grant application. Works should be completed and grants paid within 12 months of an application being approved.
- ‘Delivering Housing Adaptations for Disabled People: a detailed guide to related legislation, guidance and good practice’ recommends target timescales for each stage. There are three stages:
- Stage 1 is from the enquiry at first point of contact to the Occupational Therapist (OT) referral. Their recommendations are provided to the adaptation service (landlord, housing association or grant provider).
- Stage 2 is from the OT recommendation to approval of the scheme.
- Stage 3 is from the approval of the scheme to the completion of the works.
Bassetlaw District Council’s policy
- The Council’s policy sets out what a DFG can be used for. It includes: access to the home; access to a family room, bathroom or room suitable for sleeping; access to a kitchen; improved heating, lighting and power; or to make a home safe.
- The Council refers any adaptations which are likely to exceed £10,000 to its Disabled Facilities Panel, which will consider which adaptations are essential to meet a person’s needs and consider any alternative solutions. Before referring a case to panel, the Council’s technical officer and the allocated occupational therapist must undertake a joint visit.
- The Council says where it is not ‘reasonable and practicable’ to adapt a property, it will ask applicants to think about moving to more suitable accommodation. The Council says it can offer financial help towards the cost of moving.
- The Council considers an application is valid once the applicant submits all necessary forms, two independent estimates, financial information and proof of title deeds.
- The Council can offer a discretionary grant of up to £10,000 to ‘top up’ the mandatory grant.
- Ms X has two young children, C and D, with a rare progressive condition. Both children need 24-hour monitoring and they are supported by several pieces of equipment which alert their carers to any change in their condition. They receive nutrition via a central line which puts them at high risk of infection. The children need prompt access to their local hospital if there is a sudden decline in their health.
- The children live with their mother and siblings in a home owned by Ms X and her former partner. C sleeps in the dining room, and D sleeps in the living room. Ms X sleeps on a sofa between them. Ms X’s two youngest children share the bedroom on the ground floor while the remaining siblings share the bedrooms on the first and second floor.
- The children needed more specialist equipment to enable Ms X and others to continue to safely care for them. The living arrangements meant C and D had no privacy or space to spend time with their family. In September 2016, Ms X contacted her local county council asking for adaptations to her home.
- The actions of the county council in the DFG process are subject to a separate investigation by the Ombudsman.
- Technical officers from Bassetlaw District Council first visited Ms X’s home in October 2017. The officers’ early conclusion was that they did not think the adaptations would be ‘reasonable and practicable’ but they agreed to speak to the Council’s planning department before ruling them out. Records suggest Ms X understood any adaptations would be difficult.
- One of the technical officers made enquiries with the planning department. He was told to follow the formal pre-application process in place with the Council’s housing management service, A1 Housing, which would take at least four weeks. The technical officer reiterated his concern that the proposals put forward by the occupational therapist were unlikely to receive planning permission and said the Council needed to explore alternatives as soon as possible.
- The Council’s Disabled Facilities Panel first discussed the adaptations on 29 November 2017. The panel discussed options for adapting the existing property. The panel decided to explore the possibility of a two-storey extension at the back of the property. Officers visited again the following week and plans were drawn up towards the end of December for changes to the ground, first and second floor. Concerns remained that the proposed changes would not secure planning consent.
- In January 2018, the Council began exploring alternatives to adapting the property. These included:
- Agreement from a senior manager to buy a property which was better suited to being adapted, for Ms X to rent. However, the identified property was removed from sale.
- Trying to identify two properties managed by A1 Housing which might be suitable for knocking through into one. None were available.
- Looking at the possibility of a shared ownership property. The Council told Ms X she would need to put any equity from the sale of her own house into the new property but wouldn’t be able to achieve full ownership of the property due to the overall cost involved.
- The Council said it couldn’t build on the current property.
- The Council asked Ms X whether any of her older children might be able to live with their father to reduce overcrowding.
- A1 Housing proposed the family move to an identified property in a different part of the district.
- Ms X could sell her property and buy a new property better suited to the needs of the family.
- This is undoubtedly a unique case which has presented a challenge to the Council given its scale and the family’s circumstances.
- There are no minutes of the multi-agency meeting held in April 2018. Therefore, it is difficult for me to make a finding on the way the Council presented the various alternatives to Ms X. It is clear from her correspondence that she was troubled by how the meeting went and this is supported by comments her children’s occupational therapist made at the time.
- However, the Council is not at fault for looking at all possible alternatives to adapting the property. It quickly identified the site was a complex one to develop and so it was sensible to consider what else could be done to meet the children’s needs elsewhere.
- I cannot find fault in the Council’s decision to only use the DFG for works to the ground floor. It has a statutory duty to meet the needs of the children with disabilities, but not to relieve overcrowding.
- In any case, based on the definition referred to in paragraph 16 of this decision, Ms X’s property is not statutorily overcrowded. Neither would it be if the Council only completed the proposed ground floor works.
- The Council has encouraged referrals for the other children in the household who may benefit from a DFG. This may have a bearing on the funding available to carry out further works. The Council has not yet received any further referrals so has been unable to take this into consideration.
- The Council does not consider an application to be valid until estimates of the cost have been provided. At the time of writing, quotes for the work are outstanding. Therefore, the application is not yet valid and as such the six-month timescale for approving an application has not yet started.
- However, the Council has exceeded the target timescales referred to in paragraph 11 and 12. The Council says it has always considered the case to be urgent. While it is not responsible for the delays at Stage 1, it must take responsibility for some of the delays at Stage 2. Despite the Council being aware of the need for an external architect with the necessary expertise, it delayed for 19 weeks from the date of the referral in appointing one. This was fault. As a result, C and D remained living in accommodation which does not meet their needs and is preventing them from receiving the specialist equipment they need.
- Once the plans were available, the Council moved quickly to secure planning permission and to seek building regulations approval. I cannot find fault in the Council for any delays which have occurred in this part of the process.
- The Council raised Ms X’s expectations from the outset by providing plans which showed changes across all three floors of the property. This was fault and led to frustration and distress for Ms X.
- The Council issued one set of plans without consulting with the children’s occupational therapist. This was fault. By the Council’s own admission, the plans issued in May 2018 did not meet Ms X’s needs. It is difficult to understand why the Council issued them. This set of plans only served to frustrate Ms X further as she felt it demonstrated a lack of understanding of her family’s needs.
- The Council failed to secure written confirmation from Ms X that she agreed with the plan to proceed with works to the ground floor only in October 2018. It did not inform her of its decision until March 2019, some five months later. Ms X lost the opportunity to make an informed decision about progressing with the work and had her expectations raised by the Council’s actions. This was fault.
- The Council relied on the children’s occupational therapist to give information to Ms X. It wasn’t until after Ms X escalated her complaint that the Council began to correspond with her more regularly. This was fault and contributed to Ms X’s sense the Council was not engaging with her.
- Within four weeks of this decision, to remedy the injustice caused by the faults identified, the Council will:
- Apologise to Ms X and pay her £500 in recognition of the distress and frustration caused by raised expectations, delay and poor communication.
- Pay £1,900 to Ms X for the children in recognition of the prolonged period C and D have been living in unsuitable accommodation; and the effect on the other children of living with restricted living space due to the Council’s delays.
- In calculating this, I have noted our guidance on remedies which says where a complainant has been deprived of modifications which would have improved his or her daily life, we will usually recommend a payment of up to £350 per month. I have proposed a sum based on £100 per week in recognition of the number of children affected.
- Remind staff that proposed adaptations should be shared with the allocated occupational therapist to confirm they will meet the applicant’s needs, before being shared with the applicant.
- Ensure that for future DFG applications, it agrees with the county council who will act as key contact and confirms this in writing with the applicant.
- Ensure where necessary it receives written agreement from applicants to proceed with a particular course of action rather than relying on the agreement of other professionals.
- For the reasons given in the Analysis section of this decision, I uphold Mrs X’s complaints about communication, raised expectations and delay.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman